Have you ever fantasized about sitting in a huge Broadway theatre and rocking out to your favorite classic Top 40 hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s, from Led Zeppelin’s magical, mystical “Stairway to Heaven” to Queen’s magnificent “Bohemian Rhapsody?” Well, don’t stop believing in your dream – in fact, you can now dream on thanks to Rocktopia, the quasi-concert at the Broadway Theatre (though April 29).
Still, this ultimate jukebox musical attempts to be more than just a showcase for classic rock by intermingling it with classical music and even a touch of opera, often with whiplash-inducing back-and-forth speed. Bits of famed pieces from composers ranging from Mozart to Mussgorsky are played with verve by the New York Contemporary Symphony Orchestra, accompanied by the amazing Celtic violinist Mareiad Nesbitt, although much of the audience hears these instrumentals as mere intros to their favorite songs, rather than as connective tissue.
We’re even treated to an occasional dose of Puccini, such as the lovely “Musetta’s Waltz,” nicely performed by the diva-like Alyson Cambridge. (On the downside, given how many splendid renditions of “Nessum Dorma” have been drummed in our ears over the years, the rather sub-par version included here is a mistake.)
But what the fans have come for, and what the show’s creators have wisely delivered for the most part, are timeless tunes that most people (over 40, anyway) can sing along to, and that gain some added melody from the backing of the onstage symphony. You can hear how well the concept works almost immediately through crowd-pleasing renditions of The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” and Styx’s “Come Sail Away” (both featuring the show’s co-creator, Broadway veteran Rob Evan on lead vocals).
Even if not every selection blows the roof off the theater, there are far more hits than misses. The evening’s breakout star, the gorgeous Chloe Lowery, has the audience cheering as she belts out Heart’s heart-wrenching “Alone” with remarkable power and earns a well-deserved ovation for her stunning reimagining of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
The singular Tony Vincent, who has starred on Broadway in Jesus Christ Superstar and American Idiot, brings enormous intensity to Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and Pink Floyd’s bombastic “Another Brick in the Wall.” Last (and somewhat least) among the regular cast is Kimberly Nichole (who, like Vincent, appeared on NBC’s The Voice). She has an unusual voice that doesn’t fully register in this cavernous house, but scores strongly on Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.”
Video designers Michael Stiller and Austin Switser work hard to add visual appeal to the two-and-a-half-hour show, but one wonders what a lot of their imagery has to do with the music. Instead, their efforts are best served in two moments: when a parade of great historical figures are seen behind Vincent’s full-throated version of Queen’s anthemic “We are the Champions” and when photos of rock’s late, great figures float by while Lowery beautifully sings Brian May’s bittersweet “Who Wants to Live Forever?”
Finally, in the early half of its run, the show benefitted greatly by the guest appearance of its one bona fide rock star, Train’s charismatic Pat Monahan, who is blessed with a striking falsetto and great stage presence. We’ll see exactly what Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider and Cheap Trick lead singer Robin Zander add to the show in the coming weeks, but I am sure they will make valuable contributions to this unusual journey.