The death of rock and roll, like the death of theatre, is something that's frequently over-exaggerated. The argument at the center of Will Bennett's new play, Corporate Rock, is that the importance of music is being lost, and sellable brand names of questionable talent (one example from the play is Britney Spears) are replacing or suppressing real musical talent at every level of the industry.
If Corporate Rock's main theme is the apparently losing battle that substance is fighting against style, the message would come through much more clearly if Bennett made more serious, substantive arguments. Though the play itself is primarily a vehicle for cheap laughs, sound bites, and complaints about the degradation of quality of Rolling Stone magazine, it is, ironically, all presented with such an invigorating style that it almost seems these really are messages worth hearing.
That's due to the play's director, Timothy Haskell. Haskell has a keen theatrical eye and a kinetic sense of humor that propel the show constantly forward like a bullet from a gun. The staging he's devised is remarkably fluid and inventive, treating theatrical space and time as eminently valuable and never wasting any of either. Aided by a considerable amount of pre-recorded rock music (Vincent Oliveri is the sound designer), Haskell's Corporate Rock is overloud, overbusy, and overblown, but it always seems just right.
What he can't do is make much of the story interesting. Dylan (Travis York) is about to turn 30 and is facing a music scene he can't relate to, being kicked out of his childhood home, and losing his job at Rolling Stone if he can't help the magazine's star feature writer, Nathaniel (Jamie Benge), improve his writing. When Nathaniel is kidnapped by an aspiring French heavy metal musician (Nick Arens), Dylan sees it as an opportunity to advance his own career.
Dylan's disillusionment with music and his life is what's supposed to drive the show, but the character is too symbolic and unspecific for him (or us) to latch onto. It doesn't help that Dylan is surrounded by a roster of zany supporting characters including Dylan's oat-sowing mother (Gerry Diamond), a Vanilla Ice wannabe (Aaron Haskell), a trampy sexpot of indeterminate Eastern European origin (Natalia Hernandez), and an impossibly ditzy blonde coworker (Kellie Arens).
York works very hard to bring Dylan to life, but never makes quite the impression most of his gleefully over-the-top castmates do. (Dorian Missick as Dylan's boss and the French kidnapper's father and Charles Jang as Dylan's coworker and friend Chan are the most low-key of the performers.) Still, York is an affable actor, and capable enough of carrying the show, if not taking it to the next level.
No, that's the role director Haskell has assumed. It's almost impossible to imagine Corporate Rock without the rock-concert staging Haskell has given it. With wild colorful lighting (by Nick Nohn), set pieces (designed by Paul Smithyman) that never seem to stop moving, and a thoroughly musical sensibility, the show feeds upon itself and its staging to such a degree that it's almost impossible to tell where the script ends and the direction begins.
A few moments, like a lengthy dance to Michael Jackson's "Beat It" or a campy (yet hilarious) Matrix-like fight scene, feel slightly shoe-horned in, and reining in a few of the performances a bit probably wouldn't hurt. Even so, Haskell's production transcends the well-intentioned but bland writing Bennett has provided and makes Corporate Rock, if never quite compelling, at least solidly entertaining.