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Rock And Roll Refugee

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Chris Thorn, Dee Roscioli, Kristin Nemecek, and Charlotte Cohn
Photo by Russ Rowland

It's the music, first and foremost, that carries the bio-play Rock And Roll Refugee, based on the hard times and rebellious life of Genya Ravan. Having fled with her family to America from Poland and the Holocaust when she was a young girl, Ravan assimilated far beyond the hopes and expectations of her parents by flinging herself full tilt into the world of 1950s and 1960s rock.

Now playing at the Royal Family Performing Arts Space, Rock And Roll Refugee is filled with hard rocking numbers written by Ravan, who, while never truly a superstar, has had a successful career as a recording artist and producer. She was a member of what has been widely reported to be the first all-female rock band to be recorded by a major studio (the band was Goldie and the Gingerbreads, "Goldie" being the Americanized version of Ravan's given name "Genyusha"). She later was lead singer for Ten Wheel Drive.

With the show (book by Chris Henry, who also directs), the heavy lifting in terms of the singing is left to the vocal prowess of Katrina Rose Dideriksen, a terrific belter who has performed on Broadway (Hairspray) and who was understudy for the lead in A Night With Janis Joplin. The Janis Joplin connection is very apt, as there is definitely a Joplin quality to Genya Ravan's raspy-voiced singing. Dideriksen adds to the image by doing her numbers while grasping onto and intermittently swigging from a bottle of booze. She is backed by an equally talented three-piece band (Daniel A. Weiss on keyboards, Ann Klein on guitar, and Warren Odze on drums).

Based on Ravan's memoir "Lollipop Lounge," Rock And Roll Refugee, is presented as a memory play. Ms. Dideriksen and the band perform from a loft overlooking the space where the memories come alive. Genya, the established singer, is thinking about her life from the time her family escaped from Poland, to their arrival at Ellis Island, to a decade of living in the Lower East Side. The play fleshes out the biography hinted at in the songs with scenes of those difficult years for Genya, suffused with physical and sexual abuse, an early and short-lived marriage, and a rebelliousness that led her, among other things, to flee her husband by hitching a ride on the back of a Harley and hightailing it all the way to California.

The younger Genya, or Goldie as she was called then, is played from the age of 7 to her teenage years by Dee Roscioli, who does particularly well in capturing that ‘50s rebel-without-a-cause attitude. A still younger version of the character is played by Imogen Williams. Also of note are Charlotte Cohn and Chris Thorn, who play the parents. You can easily see the toll their forced exile has taken on them, even as they mistreat their two daughters, Goldie and Helen (Kristin Nemecek). They have sacrificed much, including two sons who died in the Holocaust, and they wonder as they watch their out-of-control teenage girls whether it was worth it.

The budget-constrained production makes good use of projections (video design by Matthew Haber) and a low-keyed and functional set design (by Cheyenne Sykes and Alex Petersen) to suggest Ravan's life on the Lower East Side. But it is the music that matters most, along with Genya Ravan's strong and resilient personality that shines through no matter what obstacles block her path.

The show ends on a high note indeed when the three actresses playing Genyusha/Goldie/Genya come together to sing a rousing version of one of Ravan's autobiographical songs, "202 Rivington Street," referring to the address of the tenement where her family lived. By then, of course, we have a pretty good idea of the meaning behind the words, and the song perfectly encapsulates the entire evening.

Rock And Roll Refugee
Through February 14
Royal Family Arts Centre, 145 West 46th Street, 3rd floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix