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The Rockae

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Women of the ensemble.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Step aside, Spring Awakening: Your brief stint as the rock musical for people who don't know rock musicals has come to an end. Until today, it's been difficult for those of us in the know to point to a current show and say, "This is what you're missing if you think the rock revolution only thrives on Broadway." But with the opening of the Prospect Theater Company's production of The Rockae at the Hudson Guild Theatre, we again have a rock musical that's not only rock, but actually a musical, too. And a sizzling one.

That means, among other things, lyrics that rhyme (always perfectly, as far as I could tell), relate to the characters singing them, and burst with a witty inventiveness not typically reserved for the least-respected genre of musical theatre. Of course, avid followers of the Off-Off-Broadway scene have come to expect this of this of this show's authors, Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, who've spent the last several years writing musicals in the traditional musical-comedy idiom. They are, however, at least as adept at transforming theatre into a rock concert - and making a rock retelling of a classic play both newly alive and not at all incongruous.

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense: Whether examining F. Scott Fitzgerald's romance with Ginevra King through the lens of the Princeton Triangle Club drag shows in The Pursuit of Persephone, or refashioning The Producers for the Communist era with Iron Curtain, one of the duo's favorite topics has been the convoluted connections (and blurred barriers) between show business and real life. So what better way to reconceive The Bacchae, Euripides's 2400-year-old tragedy about the dangers of groupthink and sexual abandon, than by setting it against and within its contemporary cult-of-personality equivalent?

Mitchell Jarvis, Andrew Miramontes, and Matt DeAngelis.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

In The Rockae, one of their most exciting collaborations, Mills (score and conception) and Reichel (conception and direction) have made Dionysus (Michael Cunio) a steel-voiced sex magnet who attracts all the women of Thebes through sheer force of will. Pentheus (Mitchell Jarvis), clad in leather, denim, and codpiece, is the alt-rock equivalent who demands strict fidelity to his own code of worship. That means no Dionysus and, well, an unhappy end for him, and for anyone who enforces preconceived notions of accepted morality. Once those women are let loose around their idol, they'll tear apart anyone who gets in their way - figuratively and literally.

Euripides, however, remains mostly intact. Clocking in at a lean 90 minutes the show sacrifices only some of the original's more prophetic sections (the seer Tiresias, a frequent fixture of Greek tragedy, does not appear) but leaves the bulk of the plot and characters and intact. The addition of 13 songs doesn't hamper the storytelling - in fact, given the party-like-it's-99 atmosphere they even enhance many sections of the story by bringing the conflict between men and women straight onto the dance floor where choreographer Marlo Hunter injects them with an erotic, go-for-broke urgency strong enough to make you want to join in the reveling yourself.

But with songs this good, you're only missing out if you're not in the theater. Mills has unleashed four undisputed hits in the violently celebratory "Run to the Mountain," "Let the Bedrock Rock," "High on Cithaeron," and "Only Now," which pound through your veins and nerves with the same throbbing potency they surge through the sound system. The rest of the score, which is generally in the hard-rock mode but occasionally dips into folk, funk, and metal, doesn't quite reach these Olympian heights, but is nonetheless highly accomplished, whether Pentheus's laid-back, introductory "I Rule," retired king Cadmus (Gordon Stanley) distributing his knowledge of the world and the fates in "Be Wise," or the searing lament of Pentheus's mother (Meghan McGeary) over her disastrously devilish behavior.

With excellent voices from each of the 18 company members, piercing lighting (by Lily Fossner), and costumes (by David Withrow) that highlight every curve and line of the athletic, acrobatic Bacchae, what's missing? Very little. Oh, Reichel's staging lacks many of the visual pyrotechnics she's brought to her last few outings; and Cunio makes for an overly namby-pamby Dionysus, with a statuesque physique that alone doesn't command the proper devious authority this deity needs. But even with these minor blemishes, The Rockae is demonstrating that the fall is already looking a lot better than Spring.

The Rockae
Through October 14
Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 West 26th Street between 9th and 10th
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania

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