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Imagining a Fusion of Classical and Classic Rock in Rocktopia

Rob Evan and Randall Craig Fleischer's "classical revolution" touches down at the Broadway Theatre.

Máiréad Nesbitt serenades singer Rob Evan with solo violin accompaniment in Rocktopia.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Billing itself as "a classical revolution," Rocktopia is, as star and cocreator Rob Evan has written about this Broadway-style concert now playing at the Broadway Theatre, an attempt to "break down...any preconceived notion of what either genre is about — and electrify and inspire lovers of either musical styles." There's nothing inherently wrong with that aim: Leonard Bernstein made such barrier-breaking his mission throughout his career as a conductor and composer, and the show's other major creative force, Maestro Randall Craig Fleischer, who studied under Bernstein, could be said to merely be taking his mentor's inclusive dictum to a logical extreme in Rocktopia by bringing classical music to a concert-arena setting.

In practice, though, the focus in Rocktopia turns out to be far more on the rock side of the concept than on the classical side. Here, the classical-music selections more often than not serve as introductions to the rock numbers, all given lavish arena-rock treatment by the performers and the creative team.

Maestro Randall Craig Fleischer leads the New York Contemporary Symphony Orchestra in Rocktopia.
(© Matthew Murphy)

The result is thoroughly half-baked. The classical and classic-rock selections are a cornucopia of all the usual suspects: the opening sunrise from Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, the first movement of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and the "Ode to Joy" theme from the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, among others on the classical side; the Who's "Baba O'Riley," Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and "Kashmir," Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," and more on the rock side. Maybe the poverty of imagination in the selections might not have mattered if Fleischer's arrangements shed any fresh light on these overfamiliar chestnuts.

But even when the mash-ups sounds more or less smooth — bits of Puccini's "Nessun dorma" aria from Turandot interpolated into "Kashmir," the dreamy opening of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique transitioning to Aerosmith's "Dream On" — there's nothing new to be gained from any of them other than the cheap thrill of mixing the (classical) sacred and the (rock) profane.

Special guest vocalist Pat Monahan channels Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant in Rocktopia.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Instead, Rocktopia is more invested in pandering to baby boomer nostalgia — enshrining it, even going so far as to elevate it to something like universal, time-honored wisdom. Michael Stiller and Austin Switser's video designs, which remain a constant presence throughout the show, are the most revealing in that regard.

Though most of the time their images are innocuously illustrative at best (reminiscent of Microsoft Windows screen savers), a few of the numbers inspire the pair to get ambitious with their montages. Their use of photographs of rebellions from around the world to illustrate a mash-up of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2" and Muse's "Uprising" is logical enough. But even that won't prepare you for the hilariously tasteless montage that begins, to the strains of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," as an in memoriam segment for rock stars who died prematurely (no classical composers featured, tellingly) before turning into a celebration of historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Anne Frank, and John F. Kennedy set to the bombastic strains of Queen's "Who Wants to Live Forever" and "We Are the Champions."

Kimberly Nichole draws the Rocktopia audience in with her rendition of "Because the Night."
(© Matthew Murphy)

Whatever crumbs of pleasure are to be found in Rocktopia come solely from the singers: Tony Vincent's twitchiness in his interpretations of "Purple Haze" and the aforementioned Muse and Queen songs, Kimberly Nichole breathing Nina Simone-like intensity into "Because the Night" (in arguably the show's best vocal performance, though it's spoiled by some spectacularly misguided images of porn-theater marquees flashing behind her), Chloe Lowery bringing the house down with a soaring rendition of Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is," and special guest vocalist Pat Monahan decently channeling Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and joining in a group rendition of "Nessun dorma" at the end of Act 1. All-white-clad solo violinist Máiréad Nesbitt also impresses with her virtuosity — at least, during the rare moments when she and the rest of the New York Contemporary Symphony Orchestra aren't being drowned out by electric guitarist Tony Bruno and the rest of the house band in sound design (by Nick Kourtides) that clearly favors noisy bombast over crystal clarity.

Considering how unevenly balanced the acoustic is, one can't help but wonder if it was even worth bringing in the orchestral elements in the first place. But then, considering how much more interested Rocktopia is in the celebration of dad rock, perhaps it's inevitable that this would extend to drowning out the classical music it ostensibly seeks to celebrate.

Rocktopia will continue to rock on at the Broadway Theatre through April 29.
(© Matthew Murphy)
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