Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Red Rock Diner jives & jams big time!

Here's what it's about : RRD is not a "play" but a rock-&-roll musical revue that by and large is an excellently-executed song-&-dance jive-jam of 50's rock-&-pop. 

Local R-&-R d.j. giant Red Robinson is the hook in this reprise of the 1997 Dean Regan original creation. Robinson is the only d.j. on earth, we're told, to introduce to live audiences over the course of a decade or more each of Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Beatles. He put Vancouver on the rock map long before the largely-unknown backwater of YVR was discovered and bought out. Now you don't learn much about Red in RRD.* Mostly he's a bit of a wise-ass radio personality on CKWX linking together some 20 pop hits and another couple dozen song-snippets on the night. And unlike ACT's Helen Lawrence this spring, you don't learn much about Vancouver from back in the day, either. 

But boy-oh-boy do you get energy and flashdance and great musical chops from RRD's performers as directed and choreographed by Valerie Easton and music'd by Steven Greenfield.

A bit of background on context : As a late WarGen kid growing up in the 50's USA midwest, I thought the music from that era aimed at us generally sucked. Not Sinatra and the Rat Pack group and their carryover of big band 40's sounds. No. But these, the likes of Bobby Vee. Bobby Vinton. Frankie Avalon. Ricky Nelson. Eddie Fisher. Pat Boone. To a person, to me, they were all Wonder Bread white. Hard to categorize any of their stuff as "rock-&-roll" I sniffed at the time.

There were exceptions. Some sourdough & rye with crust, no question. Elvis. And while "Jailhouse Rock" might have been a bit too raunchy and crunchy for us northern Republican Baptists, his cover of Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" was choice. [I actually owned a pair of b.s.s. in Grade 8 in '58 along with saddle shoes and penny loafers.] Other notables : The Everly Brothers. Buddy Holly. Richie Valens. The Big Bopper. Bobby Darin. (Little Richard? A whack-o orbiting his own planet, we Milwaukee suburbanites thought.) But at least these people rocked -- and we rolled along joyously with them in the back of Dad's Ford convertible.

Some of the sketchier ballads from that time, i.m.o., included "Little Star" with its obnoxious & maudlin "There you arrrrrrreee,  little starrrrr..."closing line. "Teenager in Love". "Venus" -- "Oh Veeeeenus, make my dreams come true!" [At least to that lyric we body-press'd our girlfriends with their flannel poodle skirts at the weekly sock hop. Hope springs eternal...] But thin, v-e-r-y thin musically, this stuff. To me and my Ford buddies anyway.

No, it wasn't until Roy Orbison's iconic "Crying" and another, "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King in the Kennedy 60's, that ballads for teen-age ears were at last evolving, we hoped, into a wee bit of nuance and substance, away from AM radio's cotton candy we'd been force-fed for years.

Well, whatever I might have thought about that music back then, I can tell you this : RRD turns those three songs I "hated" back in the day and makes them a delight to watch and hear in 2014 as part of pop music's varied history from that time. And it ends, appropriately, with the Roy and Ben numbers to signal the next chapter of rock's emerging identity.

"Action" works in lieu of plot : In its two hours, two acts we first find young DJ Red spinning discs in the CKWX broadcast booth for his 7-Up sponsored Teen Canteen after-school show while the cast of high schoolers jive it up to the tunes he plays. Second act features Red doing a dance and talent show at King Ed High on Grad Night, 1957. 

There is no fleshed-out story-line or narrative arc -- just 12 wizardly antic souls singing and strumming and tooting and dancing their hearts out. 

RRD amounts to a serial review of songs from those times with verbal and visual Vancouver reference points thrown in casually, almost willy-nilly, such as a note about homes selling for $15,000 in Kitsilano that year or call-ins about a Robinson radio prank over whales allegedly beached at English Bay. Billboard ads flash above the set that feature the Vancouver Mounties and White Spot. '57 Fords and Buicks. Trev Deeley Harleys. Texaco Sky Chief Supreme. Doublemint.

To some, the lack of "what-ness" that stage plays usually provide detracts from the evening's success. Not to tonight's crowd, not in the least. There was hollerin' and clappin' and cheerin' and stompin' and laughin' from the cheap seats up top to front row downstage centre and throughout all 20 rows between. The G.I. stage is the perfect venue for this production (just as it was for Regan's excellent Black and Gold Revue a couple decades or more ago that I went to four times...!). 

Cast highlights : This was first rate work by the troupe. But there were three primary standouts : as Johnny B, the Red Rock Diner soda jerk, Colin Sheen for me nearly stole the show single-handedly (double-foot-edly...?) with his dance and choreography and stage business moves. Faster more subtler feet in red sneaks I don't believe I have witnessed on a Vancouver stage in years. And the boy can sing, oh can he sing. His cut at Johnny Ray's "Cry" brought down the house.

Vying with Sheen for top dance moves (and an absolutely wild! hula hoop display) is Anna Kuman as Connie. She makes her crinolines bob-&-bounce and weave-&-warp with breathtaking speed and variety. And she can belt out tunes with gusto as well as croon sweetly with Robyn Wallis as Venus.

Zachary Stevenson is well-known to ACT audiences for his regular redux as Buddy Holly. He transports his signature leg-hop / knee-lift / guitar-banging stretch-out routine to his role here as Val, where he also adds some clever sax riffs to his customary 6-string prowess and big big voice. 

Of the five instrumentalists, clearly Brett Ziegler on sax was the crowd favourite in his hefty but light animation throughout the night. He sings lustily and with good cheer, too. (And does a mean chime.) Overall, leader Steven Greenfield's hand-picked mates earn the kudo of being truly a band, not just accomplished players. 

Production values prominent : Ted Roberts' excellent set of checkerboard flooring, chrome red-stool and diner counter, Ward's Music storefront, and the twin two-storey perches for Red's d.j. booth plus a dress shoppe opposite were clever, as were the warm lighting and timely spots on stage. 

Costume designer Darryl Milot captured to a thread the range of clothes sported back then from over-bright pedal-pushers to Fonzi leathers to Converse canvas. 

Andrew Tugwell's sound design filled every corner of the house with richness and clarity. 

But it is Valerie Easton's blocking, her customary choreographic excellence that captures the zeitgest so perfectly, her stage business such as Johnny B's chrome polishing and counter-cloth routines -- these are what make this revue sparkle in spite of its lite storyline. Her involvement of a dozen of the audience up on stage in Act 2 with the troupe and ensemble was inspired and gleeful goofiness that had the house hooting. [My wife's participation in that schtick was lots of fun for all to watch...!]

Who gonna like : To be exposed to so many snatches and whole cuts of songs from both the ditzy stuff of the 50's as well as its full-on rock songs serves to remind WarGen's and Boomers how far we've traversed from the carefree kick-the-can Howdy Doody 1950's. And as they did tonight, when folks exit to a Granville Island summer evening awash in moonglow and a moment's lingering nostalgia for those happy days of yore, they know why they came. So if "Do the Hucklebuck" and "Chantilly Lace" and "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Wake Up Little Susie" compel you to shake your booty, this one's for you. 

* In recognition of his early promotion of the emerging phenomenon known as rock-&-roll, Red Robinson was the sole Canadian inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1995 along with a slew of Yanks. 

Regrettably, I think, there's a bit of "brag factor" at work in Dean Regan's scripted lines for Red's character in RRD that detracts from the show just a smidgeon. E.g. to have met and emcee'd the likes of Elvis and Buddy Holly and the Beatles does not make them "friends" except in the most casual or flippant sense of the word possible. Bad descriptor used more than once. But that's a mere quibble aimed at creator Regan more than at the venerable and charming Red Robinson himself who was in the house Monday night. 

As a member of the BC Entertainment Walk of Fame (outside the Orpheum), the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame, and -- my favourite -- the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Red Robinson has a pedigree that is huge and genuine : his contribution to the music and entertainment scene now spans some six decades here in Greater Vancouver. That's a Wow! factor well-earned indeed.


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