REVIEW: Centre Stage Music Show Explodes with Rock Classics from the Record Machine

The cast of “Jukebox Heroes.”
Photo by Wallace Krebbs.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

After being stranded alone in pouring rain outside a sold-out concert, a determined kid straps on a thrift store guitar slung way down low and sets out to become a rock star –a “Jukebox Hero.”

That inspirational ditty by British-American band Foreigner is an apt launching pad for “Jukebox Heroes” the highly-combustible music show devoted to classic rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s at Centre Stage with a few forays into the 1980s songbook.

“Jukebox Heroes” stars a raging, fully-charged band of veteran musicians fronted by a sizzling young cast, all born well after the bulk of these songs in this set list were recorded in the age of “progressive rock,” that redefining period of rock operas, concept LPs and album rock, when 10 to 40 minute compositions were not uncommon.

But “Jukebox Heroes,” directed and music directed by Taylor Marlatt, spins a more record machine-friendly arsenal of rock and roll 45s in an eclectic collection of some 40 hits ranging from Queen’s mob-inducing anthem “We Will Rock You” to Fleetwood Mac’s witchy “Rhiannon” and from the Motown girl trio Martha and the Vandellas to the Fab Four, heralded in a delightful medley.

Marlatt eschews heavy metal, but there is some harder-edged rock (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Hate Myself for Loving You”). And she packs in plenty of power ballads and pop songs to satisfy the most discerning audience member.

Kaylee Gonzalez (recently seen as Soupy Sue in The Warehouse Theatre’s “Urinetown”) proves to be the bona-fide head-banging’ rock goddess in this show. With a presence and commanding style somewhere between Kylie Minogue and Lita Ford, Gonzalez channels both Ann and Nancy Wilson in her ferocious “Barracuda” and sultry, authentic cover of Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet.”

Khristin Stephens (most recently in Greenville Little Theatre’s “Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay!” music show) is the soul of this group performing a fantastic “Chain of Fools” (Aretha Franklin) and brings down the house with her emotional, sweeping interpretation of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke’s paean of the Civil Rights Movement, in one of the two best-received solos of the evening, and she does it in that deep, expressive musicality vein of Jennifer Hudson or Jennifer Holliday.

The top honor goes to Jessica Eckenrod, a singer and songwriter who sparkles as sweetly as Jordin Sparks and garnered a well-earned instant standing ovation for swooning “Cry Baby” that was, quite frankly, better than the original Janis Joplin version. She slows down at the piano for Carole King’s “Beautiful” (truly beautiful!) and ecstatically dares anyone to cross her with Aretha’s song of female empowerment “Think.”  Eckenrod made me think of Aretha in the “The Blues Brothers” diner.

Mary Evan Giles (who along with Eckenrod returns for an encore after last year’s “Heart and Soul” hit music show) may be the most versatile performer in the cast. She and Eckenrod (real-life bffs) brilliantly blend their symbiotic voices for James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Then she “rings like a bell in the night” in Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” (and she plays acoustic guitar).

And, with the chutzpah of Ziggy Stardust, she sports a new David Bowie hairstyle (a creation by the company’s resident Hair and Make-up artist Victor De Leon), which hails particularly poignantly in the outstanding tribute of Bowie’s early works.

Chase Wolfe, fresh from back-to-back high profile parts in SLT’s “A Few Good Men” and as the Beast in SC Children’s Theatre’s sumptuous production of “Beauty and the Beast,” has got moves like Jagger and  implores his audience not to “make a grown man cry” in a rousing “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones. This athletic performer does the mashed potato in “Do You Love Me? (The Contours) and dazzles with his agility, literally pouncing onto Glenda ManWaring’s festive bandstand set and later, a whimsical leapfrog over a bandmate.

Benjamin Augusta (recent star of GLT’s “Footloose”) thrillingly revives (and refines) his Elvis Presley persona from GLT’s 2015 “All Shook Up” with his hearty take on The King’s’ final top 10 hit “Burning Love. ” Augusta strums electric and acoustic in this show and inherently thrives in this format, whether he is strutting in a Steven Tyler headband in “Walk This Way” or crooning a ballad like Billy Joel’s “You’re Always a Woman to Me.”

After a momentous dual turn as “Jekyll and Hyde” in the theatre’s first musical this season, Josh Thomason trades Victorian London for the countryside of Georgia and a trip bristling with jukebox money and the dance-pop hooks of “Love Shack” by the B-52s. He serenades on the piano with Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” and in the second act, valiantly leads the evening’s most magnificent number (a la Freddie Mercury) with a lot of vocal help from his friends. No spoilers here, but the original recording featured 160 vocal tracks to achieve a chorale effect.

The group as a whole acts as a slickly-crafted cohesive ensemble synced to Michael Cherry’s sexy choreography. His Ikette-like moves for the ladies in “Burning Love” and their steps (and back-up vocal harmonies) for “Chain of Fools” and The Shirelles’ “Mama Said” beckon the smooth grooves of the greatest girl groups out of Detroit.

There are no pyrotechnics in lighting designer Genesis Garza’s vision, but he does employ a couple of staggering brilliant displays of genius illumination in this production: some fittingly futuristic and heaven-sent effects for a certain David Bowie space story and again in the aforementioned tune sung by Thomason.

“Jukebox Heroes” is a generously loud show the way a rock concert should be and with flawless sound quality (courtesy of Greg McDonald) and a smokin’ kick-a** band lead by music arranger Greg Day on electric bass. Tim Lee cranks up lead guitar, Kevin Heuer beats the skins, Kelly Norwine plays multiple instruments on her keyboard and the venerable sax man Doug Norwine, who dazzles several times as soloist on center stage, heads the resplendent brass section (The Beatles “Lady Madonna” rocked!) with  Wesley Day on trombone and Chris Imhoff on trumpet and flugelhorn.

And frequent Center Stage actor Sara Tolson makes her first foray into theater fashion design in “Jukebox Heroes” with bolts of leather and lace, suede and fringe, and some very tight jeans for the fellas.

The scenic painting by Jenni Baldwin and Amber Ensley is stage manager.

Centre Stage’s music show is the company’s biggest box-office bonanza of the season and sells out every single year, so make haste and get your tickets now!

“Jukebox Heroes” runs Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. January 19 – February 11 at Centre Stage, 501 River St. in Greenville. For tickets call (864) 233-6733 or visit www.centrestage.org.

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