Rock and Roll
by John Gray
Theatre New Brunswick
By the end of the first scene of Theatre New Brunswick's new production it's clear that Rock and Roll is a heck of a show, but not much of a play. The strengths are clear: the music carries enough of the energy of the late fifties to bring all of us along, and the cast's musicianship is firm and infectious. We're introduced to The Monarchs, a modestly successful Maritime band, together for a reunion for the first time after twenty years, and we get a taste of their music. It's convincing, straight-ahead mainline rock and roll, and the cast moves with excitement and precision and sings with authority.
During that scene, though, there's a moment which becomes an emblem of the play. Manny the rich drummer (Peter Baylis) and Chink the poor bass player (Milo Shandel) break into an argument, take a run at each other, and are held apart by Brent (W. J. Matheson). It's a Larry, Moe and Curly moment -- but unfortunately, it's weakly choreographed and falls between being stylized slapstick and believable conflict. And, of course, it turns out to be a running gag in the show. It's one that never got a laugh. The contrast between the authority with which the actors move in song and the clumsiness of this move in the drama echoes through the rest of the evening.
Generally, the singing is better than the acting, and the songs better than the script. A song full of cliches can seem a classic, but a script full of cliches doesn't give an actor much to work with. At a number of points in the play -- for instance, where the chubby singer Parker (Tim Gammon) tells his mother that he's quitting the band and going to Toronto to make his fortune -- you could almost say the lines along with the actor. That's fine for a song.
A good example of the script's weakness comes in the scene where Parker quits the band. The point of the scene at first seems to be that he thinks the band doesn't practice and has no ambition,but when he actually quits, those issues are forgotten and suddenly it's all about his desire to go to Toronto and make something of himself. It would have been possible to connect those two things, but it would take a subtler and more reflective writer than John Gray to do it.
This sort of thing may not seem important to many people, and certainly there's much to enjoy. The cast is super: excellent singers, wonderful dancers, and creditable musicians, they carry off some solid songs and some not-quite-so-solid ones with professional skill, and generate some real excitement. I particularly enjoyed the Nylon-style doo-wop singing of The Monarchs (as instrumentalists, they're not quite so impressive, but after all, it's only rock and roll). Monique Lund, playing Shirly, the groupie who eventually marries a member of the band, has a controlled and powerful voice, with a nice, clean cutting edge. And Tim Howar, who plays a sort of "spirit of rock and roll" figure called Screamin' John McGee, is probably the most impressive performer among this impressive group: he convinced me that he might have a career as a David Bowie-style stage idol.
Back of the music, though, there's something missing. I'm not quite sure what it is. Maybe it's a sense of why the music mattered so much back in the dreary, dead fifties; maybe it's seeing that the band had to learn something and develop some skills to do this -- that music is work, too. It's true that the whole point of rock and roll was that pretty much anybody could play it after three lessons on the guitar; still, if all it really took to become "the best band in the Maritimes" was deciding to do it, we'd have had an awful lot more bands.
And there's some fuzziness in the picture we get of the period. When the Monarchs begin they're awful, of course, but they're awful in a way that makes them sound more like a bad punk band than a bad 1957 band. Rock was offensive and scandalous then, as it is now, but back then it didn't yet take scatological lyrics to offend people. Similarly, there's something that doesn't quite ring true in the characters. Monique Lund is a great singer, moves well, and is a good, competent actress, but much of the time I couldn't figure out how old her Shirly was supposed to be. During the first act, as she tries to convince the band to let her sing with them, and they refuse because they don't want to play with girls, it felt a lot like everybody involved was nine years old.
A problem which runs right through the show involves how the music connects with or relates to the plot. There's no consistent convention. Sometimes the band is playing a show, sometimes it seems to be practicing, sometimes someone breaks into song as in a conventional musical. Sometimes singers are miked, sometimes they're not; sometimes they're singing into a mike as part of a show. Miking is always a problem with a musical based on rock and roll. Rock conventionally depends on amplification, so the individual character just can't launch into song in a normal stage voice. But when you turn the mike on the quality of the voice changes startlingly. This became particularly noticeable in the second act.
Perhaps the most paradoxical difficulty, though -- the one most directly connected with the uncomfortable join between show and play -- is posed by the excellent musicianship of Geordie Haley and especially of music director Lisa St. Clair, whose keyboard work drove the show and gave it momentum. This backstage music presents an odd problem for the audience; it seemed often as though the Monarchs must have had a ghost keyboardist.
Still, there are some fine scenes: Brent and Shirly necking in the back seat of the Chevy while the rest of the band sings "This Could Be the Night" worked just fine: the song is an observant and excruciatingly accurate portrayal of fifties courtship rituals.
It may be because Theatre New Brunswick just announced the lineup of plays for next season that I was thinking about choosing plays, and about the difficult position of theatre companies, as I leafed through the program waiting for the lights to come up. It's never been easy to put together a season to please all the various constituencies that you need to get into a theatre in order to survive. And it's harder these lean days, when more money has to come from the box office. So I wasn't entirely surprised to see Walter Learning, TNB's Executive Producer, come out to charm us and warm us up a bit before the show actually started -- but it didn't feel like theatre to me. It felt like a plea for the community to support us, just as we go hear the local bands because they're local. They're us, in some sense, and their songs hit harder, and their successes and failures mean more to us than those of some distant employee of MCA or Sony.
So think of TNB as our band. It's got a beat. You can dance to it. You'll have a good time, even if the drummer occasionally misses a rimshot and the guitar riffs are sometimes a bit muddy. It's only rock and roll, but I like it.