By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“What the people need is a way to make ‘em smile,” declared astute social commentators The Doobie Brothers in Listen to the Music in 1972.
Hear hear. The Mayfield takes this sage counsel to heart by upholding, against all odds in 2020, its many-decade tradition of a new “holiday season musical revue.” Keep Calm and Rock On, by the writer/compiler team of veteran Will Marks and newcomer Poppy Topalnitsky, is an expedition, typically expansive, into the vaults of ‘70s rock where Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd et al party on, keeping ribcages world-wide vibrating and neighbours awake.
It opened live last week, with a dizzying array of COVID safety protocols in place, onstage and in the house (to a distanced audience reduced from 450 to fewer than 110). Prophetic they may have been, but in their cavalier claim that “it ain’t so hard to do if you know how” the Doobie Brothers were certainly not referring to doing musical theatre live in pandemical times.
The pre-show projection cautioning the audience, as per AHS rules, to resist the temptation to unleash their “inner rock stars” and sing along, is a tip-off. Every musical revue looks for a theatrical premise to string together the songs. When the safety rule of the moment is that all singing must be done behind enclosures, extreme ingenuity, an awful lot of plexiglass, and a blithe disregard for the usual rules of dramatic engagement, are called for. In Kate Ryan’s entertaining high-energy production, far from calm, check all three.
It lives in a cunning tri-level plexiglass galaxy (designer: Ivan Siemens) of twinkling starlight and reflections, refracted angles, and an imaginative non-stop swirl of projections (by Matt Schuurman). These veer from recognizable locales to mutating grids to psychedelic eruptions, and, video-game style, frame a glowing neon proscenium.
If there are awards for artful ingenuity with plexiglass (and if not why not?), Keep Calm and Rock On should kick butt. Gail Ksionzyk’s lighting takes to its surfaces like sequins to Spandex, and plays around with the reflective possibilities from every conceivable angle. And to be vivid, which it is, the sound design (by Harley Symington) has to take plexiglass barriers into account, too. When there’s singing to be done, the performers repair to plexiglass booths, “the boxes of rock.” And a level up, in a plexiglass container of indeterminate shape, the five-member band (musical director: Van Wilmott) rocks on with expert stylistic know-how. It’s a period of famously flamboyant guitar solos, and Symington rises impressively to the occasion.
The script that’s amusing, playfully kooky, cheerfully shameless really, about its premise. Five members of a band that fractured, acrimoniously (I mean, when has that ever happened?), more than a decade before, find themselves deposited magically together in a sort of fanciful escape room/ video game. Hey, it could happen, though the band members don’t know why, and say so.
The omniscient voice of Siri explains they’ll need to score points singing their old hits, and meet “rock star challenges” like The Red Carpet Roll Call, for example, in which the contestant has to address dumb questions from moronic interviewers. Or The Morning After, pertaining to hang-overs from week-long benders and trashed hotel rooms. Which is as reasonable as anything on reality telly for the last 50 years, and a lot more hip to absurdity.
Anyhow, what seems clear is that years have not dimmed the loathing that the members of Malaise of Time — Lee (Kieran Martin Murphy) aka Le Package who has the biggest ego in the room, Nancy (Erica Peck), John (Brad Wiebe), Janis (Pamela Gordon) and the younger last-to-join Ty (Jahlen Barnes) — still feel for each other. Bickering, one-upmanship, the dredging up of embarrassing on-tour debacles, ensue.
The five actors, who are all exceptional singers, throw themselves full-force into Christine Bandelow’s punchy and remarkably strenuous choreography, full of ’70s allusions and outbreaks of hair-tossing. They’re always on the move (it’ll either make you want to join a gym or order another drink). And as propelled by Bandelow and sneaky stagecraft by director Ryan, they invariably end up dancing into those transparent recording studio booths at either side of the stage and just above it — signed, sealed and delivered so to speak — to lace into the hard-driving repertoire of the period, including Joan Jett, Heart, the Eurythmics, David Bowie, Joe Cocker, Bon Jovi … Barracuda to Black Dog to Bootylicious, I Hate Myself for Loving You to Young American.
The double signature of Mayfield musical revues is the expert capture of musical styles and the sheer never-say-when amplitude of the song list. You may not be allowed to sing along. But there are no AHS rules for your pulse.
Keep Calm And Rock On
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre
Musical direction: Van Wilmott
Stage direction: Kate Ryan
Starring: Jahlen Barnes, Pamela Gordon, Brad Wiebe, Kieran Martin Murphy, Erica Peck
Running: through Jan. 17