Thursday, 28 October 2010

It's only Rock and Roll...

Rock and Roll Suicide stars (from left) Shaun Vining, as Idol, Max Gunn (17), as Joe Rockstar, and Pearly McGrath, as Susie Diva, Joe's girlfriend, pose during the company's first dress rehearsal with the band, in the Arrowtown Athenaeum Hall, on Wednesday night. The rock opera debuts in the hall on Wednesday and plays until Friday. Photo by James Beech.
Rock and Roll Suicide
Athenaeum Hall, Arrowtown
October 27-29, 2010

When I was 13 I wrote a story for my cousin comprised entirely from the lyrics of David Bowie songs – she lived in the US and I in the UK, and he was the single artist we both admired who translated across the Atlantic. It would be fair to say that even before I was finally defeated by Cat People (there’s only so many times you can attempt to put out fire with gasoline after all) it was a woeful effort.

Fortunately for us all, UnderGround Productions have done an infinitely better job with Rock and Roll Suicide; a rock opera featuring the music of David Bowie. Margaret O’Hanlon directs a vibrant and enthusiastic cast through some novel interpretations of familiar and lesser-known songs. The band on stage are excellent if occasionally the music mix on opening night meant they drowned some of the singers, but the sound fills the hall with depth and rhythm, almost as if at a real gig.

The story isn’t too original or hard to follow which is good because you can concentrate on the music (and that is great!) although a few spoken words might enhance the clarity, especially for those who don’t know Bowie’s lyrics already, as these are sometimes hard to decipher. Joe Rockstar (Max Gunn) wants to be a rock star so he heads to London with his trusty guitar where he is fatally impressed by the star of the moment, Idol (Shaun Vining). He also meets groupie Suzy Diva (Pearly McGrath) and promises her a whirlwind romance which becomes more of a torrid maelstrom of drugs and destruction.

Pulling the strings like malevolent puppet masters are the manipulative record producers, Jupiter (Martin D Grounds) and Vex (Margaret O’Hanlon). Like a pair of scary clowns they command and wheedle; bully and badger until they get what they want – money – at any cost. In garish costume, pancake make-up, dreadlocks (him) and fishnets (her) they wheel on a magician’s cage with plush red curtains and iron bars; fame may look alluring but it is also an illusion; a trap from which there is no escape.

The chorus work and expert choreography (Anna Stuart) makes the ensemble numbers a delight. From the spine-chilling vocal harmonies of Life on Mars – played out against flickering images from the silver screen – to a dozen human cameras flashing their shutters in synchronicity in Fame, the company numbers are a highlight. Golden Years, with arm twirling and finger clicking, is a classic rock song which the lighting emphasises perfectly, and when things get dark in the second half, the choreography for Tonight has a touch of Jai Ho to bring us out of the gloom.

A propos of which, there are some very dark themes indeed as Joe Rockstar succumbs to heroin, hallucinations and attempted suicide. The young Max Gunn handles these excellently and though he may not have the vocal experience to carry the angrier punchy numbers (Changes; Suffragette City) he really hits his stride with the soulful duet When I Live My Dream and the drugged-up Always Crashing in the Same Car.

As he sits vacantly on the sofa during Lady Grinning Soul (another vocally superb cameo for Margaret as Medusa), Anna Ashton performs acrobatics on the pole that has dominated the set since the beginning. It is a fantastic display of strength and flexibility that also (I suspect due to the skimpy 'outfit') drew appreciative whistles from half of the audience. If this is one for the boys, then Pearly McGrath’s fantastic rendition of Heroes as a disappointed and neglected lover struck a chord with the girls and brought the house down. The reprise of Heroes/ When I Live My Dream/ Starman is touchingly tender, although the preceding scene needs polishing in terms of acting and mechanics to deliver the full impact

Shaun Vining puts in a stellar performance as the fallen hero who is discarded for a younger model. His pained demise in Bewley Brothers elicits skin-crawling sympathy as he descends into madness with the assistance of projected images of his distorted face. Tom Lynch and Tom-Tom Productions do a fabulous job with the technical aspects and visual backdrop which enhances the poignancy of the piece with quotes and images of those who died too young through abuse of substances and their mental health.

Incidentally, I wouldn’t have included Michael Jackson (who seemed to be the odd one out), but I would have added Ian Curtis to the likes of Joey Ramone, Sid Vicious, Marc Bolan, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Hutchence, Phil Lynott, Keith Moon, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Johnny Thunders, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain... you can discuss this later at home. The programme includes the phone number for Wakatipu Victim Support for anyone who wishes to speak to a health professional about any issues raised by this production and there are some powerful moments as it treads a fine line between the highs and lows of adulation – never pulling any punches.

Just as Idol was thrown on the scrap heap, so Joe Rockstar follows suit when Jupiter sees he is no longer fresh and brings in a new pin-up, the effervescent Sam Hillman as DJ. He introduces a modern note (although his song, DJ, is from 1979 proving the versatility of the great man) and a hip-hop style with which the cast seem more familiar. It is indeed a credit to Margaret and Marty to get such sterling performances out of people who weren’t even alive when Bowie was at his best. The selection of songs is clearly a personal one, but perhaps more emphasis on the ‘good time’ era might explain why one would pursue such giddy heights in the first place.
There are some technical issues which need improvement and may shape up further into the run – the skylight needs to be blacked out or it ruins the lighting effects in the first half; the transition of microphones for the final number, Ziggy Stardust, is a bit shambolic; there are several occasions between numbers where the cast don’t know where to put themselves – it is a very small stage and can look crowded and messy – and it was entirely obvious that the encore was unplanned, although Fame was a good choice. On the whole, however, this is a thoroughly entertaining show.

Rock and Roll Suicide demonstrates how good a musical can be when you actually let the music do the talking. In the words of my favourite Bowie song, ‘Hot tramp; I love you so!’