Billed as “the ultimate fantasy rock ’n’ roll concert,” local producer Sheri Grace Wenger’s musical variety show Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven celebrates a tenth anniversary at Piccolo Spoleto with a nine-day run at the cushy Charleston Music Hall this week — much to the delight of returning fans and first-timers who grew up collecting 45s and LPs of their favorite pop, R&B, and rock singers.
Opening night on Thurs. June 1 went off well enough with bit more theatrical stage fanciness than fantasy in the production. Over the two-hour program (with intermission), there were plenty of choreographed dance numbers, over-the-top costumes and hairpieces, and wacky one-liners and comedic skits — more in the vein of the wacky-tacky entertainment of Solid Gold and Sonny & Cher than the gritty rock grind of The Song Remains the Same or The Last Waltz.
The curtains opened in front of full house, comprised mostly of first-generation rock ’n’ roll fans (i.e. over 50). The program’s emcee, legendary disc jockey Wolfman Jack (accurately voiced offstage by Richard Carter), delivered a deep-toned, raspy, and slangy introduction and a stage full of dancers in 1950s Grease-style costumes and the musicians of the house band off to the sides.
The entire troupe went into the first verse of the Righteous Brothers’ ’70s hit “Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven,” singing “Rock ’n’ Roll heaven / If you believe in forever, then life is just a one-night stand / If there’s a rock and roll heaven, well you know they’ve got a hell of a band … band … band!” The intro tune dissipated into the popular intro theme to Elvis Presley’s Las Vegas concerts (you know, the brassy one in 2/4 time that sounds like the theme to TV’s The Gong Show).
Unfortunately, the production did not have a ‘hell of a band” — they had a heck of an okay band. These guys were great at reading the charts and arrangements (some of which were pretty complicated), hitting their cues and endings, and kinda-sorta imitating the sounds, solos, and grooves of the dozen artists featured. It’s a minor detail, but to some purists and hardcore music lovers, the sounds of the instruments and the authenticity of the band’s renditions are as vital to reproducing or paying tribute to a classic act as the vocalist’s performance. It’s doubtful that the rockabilly cats in Elvis Presley’s first band had access to chorus pedals or other modern guitar effects. It’s unlikely that Roy Orbison ever played “Pretty Woman” with a cheesy synthesizer sound under the arrangement.
The gist of Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven has always presenting a tribute to the popular vocalists of the rock genres (“some of the greatest late rock ’n’ roll hit-makers,” as Sheri Grace Productions puts it) — including Elvis, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Dusty Springfield, Roy Orbison, Jim Morrison, Mary Wells, John Lennon, Big Mama Thornton, the Motown girl groups, and Laura Branigan.
Fortunately, many of the vocalists in this year’s program rose to the challenge of replicating the tones and styles and put their own tasteful inflictions in each three-to-four-song set — despite all the silliness, costumes, and choreography.
There were highlights. Elvis’ (played by Brandon Joyner) up-tempo version of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” made up some goofball antics. Some hilarious commentary from Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (the “grandmother of rock ’n’ roll,” played by Monique Waters) scolded the audience for not know that she wrote “Hound Dog” and “Ball & Chain.” Janis Joplin (played by Kain Cameron) wowed the crowd with a hand-clappin’, a cappella “Mercedes Benz.” Jim Morrison (played by Ryan Ahlert) sounded almost as soulful and blissed-out as the real thing.
For the most part, Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven paid respect to their selected artists with its own bombastic style and flare. For a supplementary “rock” program, maybe Sheri Grace productions will consider some sort of “Hard Rock Heaven” (with an emphasis on instrumental talents) for the fist-clinching second and third generations. Imagine the supergroup lineup of Keith Moon and John Bonham on double drum kits jamming with a guitar section of Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Buddy Holly, D. Boon, and George Harrison, King Curtis on tenor sax, Ray Charles on piano, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on Farfisa, Johnny Cash on acoustic guitar, Gene Clark on tambourine, and a chorus of singers comprised of Joe Strummer, Kurt Cobain, Sandy Denny, Freddie Mercury, and Nico … introduced on stage by Bill Graham — now that’s a “fantasy band!”
Piccolo Spoleto Musical Theater • “Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven” • June 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, & 10 at 8 p.m.; June 3, 11 at 3 p.m.; June 4 at 4 p.m. • $29, $26 seniors/students
Charleston Music Hall • 37 John St. • 554-6060
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