By Adam Waldman
Before the lights went down at a matinee performance of Rocktopia at the Broadway Theatre in New York City, it struck me that I was about to experience something unique. Obviously, the melding of rock music with classical, opera, and show tune influences is different in its own right, but it was the makeup of the audience that intrigued me.
As expected, there were members of Generation X and Baby Boomers who identified with the rock music, but that’s only part of the story. To my left were senior citizens. Behind me was a family with “kids” in their twenties. In front of me was a family with young kids, all of whom looked to be younger than ten. This eclectic mixture of attendees surrounding me was a microcosm of the entire audience, and for that matter, the music that we were about to experience.
From my youth to my current middle-aged standing in life, rock music has been the constant amidst the changes that occur as part of the aging process. Even though I lived within walking distance to the Broadway Theater District for several years, I rarely attended any shows.
While I have an appreciation for the talent on display, show tunes never held much luster for me. The same is true for classical music and the opera. In fact, the only Broadway shows that I’ve attended as an adult were the adaptation of the rock opera Tommy (by The Who) in 1993, and Jekyll And Hyde (featuring Sebastian Bach) in 1997. Suffice it to say that much of what Rocktopia has to offer falls well beyond my comfort zone, but I anxiously awaited the performance just the same.
The opening song, “Baba O’Riley” (by The Who), has always had special meaning to me for various reasons, not the least of which is that it was one of my favorite songs when I went to my first concert as a teenager in 1982. Máiréad Nesbitt proved early on that she is a force to be reckoned with when she nailed the marimba keyboard intro on violin. When Rocktopia co-creator Rob Evan belted out the opening lyrics – “Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals, I get my back into my living” – I knew instantly that this performance was going to be something special.
Evan has a bold, bright voice that is more Broadway than rock, but somehow, it just fit the song perfectly. “Baba O’ Riley” is an ideal opener because it sets the tone for what’s about to come. The song was originally written to be a part of Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse project (a rock opera that was supposed to be the follow-up to 1969’s Tommy), so it lends itself to the theatricality of the cast/musicians of Rocktopia. Joined by Evan’s powerful vocals was Tony Vincent, a Broadway star with a rock star edge. Like Townshend and Roger Daltrey, the whole was even greater than the sum of its parts.
Aside from appreciating the beauty of the classical introductions to the rock songs, and the talent of the orchestra, there isn’t much that I can add about how it enhances the performance. It’s the kind of thing that you need to experience to fully appreciate. The same holds true for the ungodly opera notes that Alyson Cambridge seemed to hit with ease. While it’s still not likely that I would go see an entire opera, her performance gave me an appreciation for the passion of opera lovers. From my vantage point, some of Cambridge’s best moments came when she was singing the rock songs, and showcasing her incredible range.
Like “Baba O’ Riley,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” holds a special place in the heart of most rock fans of my generation. Though the song has lost some of its appeal due to overexposure on classic rock radio, Pat Monahan (Train) and the cast of Rocktopia gave it an air of freshness. Monahan’s Zeppelin interpretations are as good as they get, but if I’m being honest, he had a tough slot for the song.
It’s likely that you don’t know the name Chloe Lowery. She certainly doesn’t have the name recognition of Monahan, but she should. Before “Stairway To Heaven,” Lowery energized the crowd and left jaws dropping with her spot-on performance of “Alone” by Heart. Very few people can hit the notes that Ann Wilson does with power, but Lowery did so (and brilliantly I might add). It was every bit as good as the original, maybe even a little bit better if that’s possible. If I had to single out an individual highlight in an overall outstanding show, it would be Lowery’s. The crowd reaction to her was overwhelming.
For Gen X rock music fans like me, the song selection for Rocktopia feels like the soundtrack to my youth. One song does not fit that description, and yet, it was my favorite of Act One. Another time, another place, maybe the performance of “Uprising” (by Muse) would not have eclipsed all other songs in the early part of the show for me. However, on the day that I went to see Rocktopia with my wife, we deliberately parked on the opposite end of town and walked to the theater. We did this to grab one last dinner at a favorite restaurant of ours from back in the day, which (sadly) is closing its doors this week.
As we weaved our way through the city streets, and got close to the theater, we ran into a barricade. Tens of thousands of impassioned people were walking down Sixth Avenue (a.k.a. Avenue Of The Americas) as they made their voices heard through the March For Our Lives movement. I was literally moved to tears after being overwhelmed by the signs, the chants, and most importantly, the photos of the children of Sandy Hook.
Rock and roll has always been about rebellion, and has never been shy about protesting the government. Rocktopia’s interpretation of “Uprising” captured all of the rebellion, angst, and frustration of the lyrics in a visceral way. From the rock instruments to the orchestra to the choir, and the voices of Evan, Vincent, Lowery, and Kimberly Nichole, the impact of the song was beyond words. Factor in the imagery on the screen, and you have the makings of one of the most powerful moments that I’ve ever felt in a live setting. It was as good of a closer as you could have hoped for in Act One. After experiencing the intensity and collective energy in the room, the intermission offered a welcomed break to catch your breath.
Keeping with politically charged artists, Act Two began with U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name,” which was followed by Monahan and Nichole playing off of each other during “Dream On.” The Aerosmith classic is a personal favorite, and has been for many years. In my high school yearbook, the quote under my photo read… “Dream on, dream until your dreams come true.” In recent years, the song has taken on new meaning to me for various reasons. Once again, I was moved by the performance.
During “Dream On,” I started to fully appreciate the virtuosity of guitarist (and Music Director) Tony Bruno. Playing any classic rock song note for note is impressive, but what sets Bruno apart is his ability to recreate the exact tone of each song as if the original guitarist was on stage playing. Replicating the playing styles of Pete Townshend, Jimmy Hendrix, Joe Perry, or Jimmy Page (among others) is no easy feat. Replicating all of them equally well is mind-boggling.
Like Act One, the cast of Rocktopia brought down the house with the closing song of Act Two. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is a rock anthem of hope that has somehow managed to increase in popularity through the years. Even though the song is overplayed, it still holds the same charm for me as it always has since it was released in 1981. The way that all of the singers played off of each other for this show stopper was mesmerizing. You could feel the pure joy emanating from the choir above the stage as they sang and danced in the background. The crowd was electrified, and gave a justifiable standing ovation when it ended.
The two encores that followed “Don’t Stop Believing” were both outstanding, but not quite up to fever pitch that was set by the Journey classic. Personally speaking, I think that the final encore should be “Don’t Stop Believing,” but that’s really nitpicking about an overall stellar performance.
Having never seen Monahan in a live setting, I’ll admit that I was eagerly awaiting his performance before the show started. Household names like Monahan, Robin Zander (Cheap Trick), and Dee Snider (Twisted Sister) may inspire people to buy tickets to Rocktopia, but I will tell you that those stars are merely icing on an already decadent cake. If Rocktopia had only its traveling members surrounded by talented local choirs and orchestras, the show would absolutely be a must-see.
With a blend of power, precision, and beauty, Rocktopia seamlessly melds the worlds of rock and roll, classical music, opera, and Broadway musicals into one. My thoughts about this awe-inspiring performance can be encapsulated by a classic Rod Stewart lyric…
“You’re ageless, timeless, lace and fineness. You’re beauty and elegance. You’re a rhapsody, a comedy, you’re a symphony and a play.”
Whenever a friend from out of town is visiting NYC, I usually suggest staying away from the Times Square area. It’s become so tourist-centric that you don’t get a feel for what makes the city special. However, I would now suggest that all friends, regardless of age or musical taste, wade through the throngs of tourists to get the Broadway Theatre to see Rocktopia while it’s in town. This is the type of show that you can see more than once and still be entertained, especially because the guest vocalists are always changing.
Rocktopia is the only show that I’ve ever seen where an audience ranging from children to senior citizens (and everything in between) is left wanting more. The two-and-a-half hours went by in the blink of an eye. If you want to experience something unique, make sure to see Rocktopia if you get the chance. You will not be disappointed!
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