BROS delivers a little too much rock opera for one hand night
Published: June 8, 2011
Music, lyrics, and script by Dylan Koehler and Aran Keating
The Terrible Secret of Lunastus
Story and script by Chuck Green, Music by Erica Patoka
Through June 12 at the Autograph Playhouse
More theater productions need to have the advisory caution: these shows contain strobes and fog mounted on the house doors. At least then you know that if things start to drag—and, when the night at the theater stretches to four hours, it will—you’re not going to be visually bored. And as the fine people behind the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS) proved with their 2009 production Grundelhammer, boring just isn’t in their repertoire. Overindulgent? Ridiculous? By all means. And over the course of BROS’ two new productions, the proceedings rarely get dull. When the plots do start to congeal a bit, there’s plenty of visual WTF? to prance across the stage: Cue bloody stumps. Cue manly eunuch making a political power play. Cue hot intergalactic trans-species love action. Cue lasers. And then cue lasers about 10,000 more times.
Now ensconced in the Autograph Playhouse at 25th and Charles streets (which the company recently and lovingly refurbished with the volunteer help of a small army), BROS has delivered not one but two over-the-top musical confections. And while far from perfect, as with Grundelhammer, what’s so contagious about the new Amphion and The Terrible Secret of Lunastus is the infectious energy of everybody involved. Neither of these productions is a minor endeavor, each with full casts, costumes, sets, and props, requiring backstage crews and front-of-the-house administration to mount every weekend. Nobody is getting paid to do this, and BROS raised a little more than $4,000 through an online fundraising campaign. If this is what motivated volunteers can do with next to nothing, hell: Why not give Baltimore’s artists a chance to make the city’s schools work?
The evening starts off with Amphion, Dylan Koehler and Aran Keating’s story very, very, very loosely inspired by historical events. The titular Amphion (a scene-stealing Adam Endres) is the musical man to sixth-century Constantinople emperor Justinian (Nairobi Collins), who is trying to broker a treaty with Persian ambassador Borzuya (a fiendish Autumn Weisz), whose headstrong and independent daughter Nasree (Melissa O’Brien) falls under the songcraft spell of Amphion’s wooing ways. Now, a Middle Eastern Muslim woman and a Western Christian man getting hot and heavy was a tad more problematic then than it is today, so no matter how passionate their songs—and, boy howdee, do Endres and O’Brien have some pipes when they want to—their love is a bit star-crossed. And when romantic push comes to political shove, somebody’s gonna lose a hand. Well, Amphion is gonna start losing limbs faster than Sherilyn Fenn in Boxing Helena.
It’s an inspired tale, but it takes a while to get moving. That’s not BROS’ fault: The historical costume tragicomic romance musical is hard to pull off. Rodgers and Hart, librettist George Abbott, and choreographer George Balanchine’s The Boys From Syracuse riff on The Comedy of Errors isn’t as beloved as Pal Joey for a reason. Thanks to some entertaining performances—Endres, O’Brien, Collins and his wonderful voice, and Jack Sossman’s sharp comic timing as Justinian’s eunuch Narses—Amphion slowly accrues momentum and becomes a potent entertainment. By the closing number, which aims for and reaches the sort of absurdly epic grandiosity you expect from rock opera, Amphion has delivered one hand hacked off, dancing girls, back-door schemes, hookah smoking, seduction, and sword fighting. Throw in some wagering and it’s like a weekend in Vegas.
And almost as long—which is one of many minor nitpicks for both of these productions. Both Amphion and Lunastus run nearly two hours, which makes the double feature a four-hour investment, including the 20-minute intermission for set change. While it’s an entertainment steal for $15—and, really, just do yourself a favor and go see these productions this coming final weekend—both could land a better punch if some of the talky bits were trimmed and the stories streamlined. Other fine-tunings that would help: Polish the set changes (Amphion had the clever idea to score a few changes: lighters up for “Stair Move”) and adjust the PA so that the vocals can be heard anytime the band gets loud, which is frequently. As with Grundelhammer, the music here is straight-up Wyld Stallyns power triumph, but the combo—keyboardists Erica Patoka and Dominic Cerquetti, guitarists Koehler and John DeCampos, bassist Tyler Merchant, and drummer Jon Caplan—delivers it with such unabashed sincerity you get caught up in its sweep. And when you do, it’d be nice to hear the lyrics better.
Especially when they’re as cheeky as they are in Lunastus. Chuck Green’s sci-fi epic is more fun than a sack of kittens, perhaps because science fiction is such a silly-putty elastic genre. In the future, the moon is doing something off and a human crew—swaggering captain Paul (Tim Olewnik), vaguely Slavic astrophysicist Vera (Barbara Zektick), her anxious boyfriend Jules (Christopher Kryzstofiak), giddy Allison (Sarah Levin), and the Android (Lily Susskind)—is sent in search of a potential home for humans. On the planet Lunastus, they meet the green-skinned Abzug—the friendly Shell (Julia Pickens) and the more cautionary Muth (Daniel Schall), Meezer (John Marra), Elder Mira (Kelly Fuller), and Elder Ozir (Jim Meyer)—and one wild-child creature named Ionos, whom Corey Hennessey plays as if the love child of pre-alkie Jim Morrison, Prince, and an issue of Paper Rad.
Turns out the Abzug were expecting the humans, thanks to a prophesy meted out by the Argus, a sacred thingymabop—or something. Doesn’t really matter: All you need to know is that Allison is a little alien-curious, Shell takes a shine to the humans, and the humans know they can settle just about anything with money and violence. Now, cue those motherfucking lasers.
It’s a riot of a story, riddled with in-jokes and played with a cheeky verve. Olewnik has the good sense to spend the entire play realizing he’s the low-rent soap opera star cast in an Ed Wood movie. The sets are entertaining, preposterous collisions of colors and designs. The show’s opening number practically functions as a title sequence. Hennessey’s Ionos and Levin’s Allison need to take their interspecies act on the road. And dancer Lily Suskind robots the living shit out of Android. Bravo.
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