I am always wary of a rock concert set in a theater. The usual decibel level and mega lighting effects won't fit the house. Rocktopia has some great moments, but it suffers from indecision - rock show or night at the theater? Ersatz opera meets ersatz rock, resulting in a self-conscious show that works too hard and often gets in its own way.
The show is at its best when rock and opera intertwine. For instance, the transition from the haunting Handel aria “Lascia Ch’io Pianga” to Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” is inspired, both musically and lyrically, giving the two singers, the gorgeous, leonine Alyson Cambridge and the lean, intense Tony Vincent a chance to sing with an authenticity that is lacking elsewhere. Later on, the killer combination Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" woven together with Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" leaves us in no doubt that opera can be totally badass.
Co-Creator and star Rob Evan has a relaxed, natural warmth and a big smile. One can hear the opera training in his singing, but he sounds better on tunes like like U2's “Where The Streets Have No Name". Opera singer Cambridge, on the other hand, possesses a stunning, richly hued voice that she has to stifle at times to match the performance level of the other singers. Unfortunately, singer Kimberly Nichole is lost in this show. Her charm fails to keep pace with the chaos.
"Purple Haze" is one of the greatest rock songs ever. As such, it requires more than an average rock singer. Tony Vincent is utterly miscast here. Bassist Mat Fieldes and guitarist Tony Bruno rock the Hendrix, but Vincent conveys no understanding of the '60's sound, and has only one performance setting - vamp rocker. (All of the performers fall into the "Look Mom, I'm Rocking!" trap at one point or another.)
In another mismatch, guest star Pat Monahan, from the band Train, has been saddled with not one but two iconic Led Zeppelin tunes. Monahan's voice is too reedy and uninteresting to deliver these songs well. He does much better with Aerosmith's “Dream On”.
The only artist who easily reaches the audience is Chloe Lowery. She has an infectious smile and impressive vocal range. In songs like "I Want to Know What Love Is" she takes her time and at just the right moment, pulls out all the stops to dazzle us with her phenomenal belt sound.
The orchestra, under the direction of conductor and co-creator Randall Craig Fleischer, is very good. The interludes between songs offer a refreshing respite from loud, louder, loudest. Violinist Máiréad Nesbitt is a cheerful virtuoso and pianist Henry Aronson is excellent. The rock band is tight, but guitarist Tony Bruno outshines everyone.
A backdrop of numerous well-placed video screens creates a theatrical effect with little fuss. I wish I could say that about the costumes. Evan's simple long jacket and black jeans, and Reicher's white tie and tails are both fine, but, with the partial exception of Alyson Cambridge's diva corset gown, the women’s dresses are dreadful. Nesbitt, Lowery and Nichole race around stage in tasteless, thigh revealing bits of fabric that threaten to flash their crotches at any moment. I think the intent is 'opera gown meets rocker chic' but the effect is one of derangement. Nordstrom has also decked out Tony Vincent in every rocker cliché from skinny jeans to eyeliner. By contrast, Tony Bruno feels at home in clothes one suspects come from his own closet.
Any show can be a beast to produce, let alone one that attempts to merge two disparate musical styles. I applaud Evan and Fleischer their effort. However, in its current form Rocktopia does need a little editing. For instance: to Nessun or not Nessun? Between "The Three Tenors" and Sarah Brightman, "Nessun Dorma" (from the Puccini opera Turandot) has been sung to death. It's also a hell of a mountain to climb, as evident in this performance. If they are going to include "Nessun Dorma" they should at least have Cambridge sing it solo. Even better, choose a less hackneyed piece. There really are other tenor arias in the world.
There are times when Rocktopia is more Rock-torture-a; it’s too loud; it tries too hard; it’s a bit cheesy, but in the end, it is good fun. Just bring ear plugs.
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)
What the popular press says...
"Ultimately, though, the real problem is the set list’s utter blandness. Commingling rock and classical music has birthed such wildly diverse artifacts as Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s cover of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” the Metallica-San Francisco Symphony collaboration “S&M” and the popular prog band Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Sadly, no such ear-bending ambition is in evidence in this show’s selections. Taken individually, these songs are in the canon for a reason, of course; one after another, their effect is numbing. Judging by the evidence on stage here, if classical music spawned one thing, it is the power ballad."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Times
"Rocktopia, which has toured various U.S. cities and been seen on PBS, gets old fast because a sameness sets in even though works by Journey, Queen, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Aerosmith, Heart and Led Zeppelin, among others, are distinct. Chalk it up to too much lung-busting, facial-distorting “American Idol”-style singing and a Celtic violin overload."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Rock and classical music had a shotgun wedding, and their love child is on Broadway in the form of Rocktopia. Not since K-tel's best-selling Hooked on Classics series in the 1980s has there been such a misguided attempt to combine two musical forms."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...