BY STEVE WONG
Not in recent memory have I enjoyed a live production of such non-stop high energy as Centre Stage’s current musical revue Rockabilly Heaven.
From the get-go when the entire nine-member cast and four-man band kicked off with Rockabilly Rhythm (made famous by Gene McKown in 1958), the show was in high gear and never really slowed down. In all, there were 34 songs, many of which were from an era (mid-1950s) that saw American popular music mash together elements of country music with rhythm and blues to create a new sound that endures today as what we now consider to be rock ‘n’ roll.
Thankfully, Director Matt Reece made the right decision to not overburden the musical flow of Rockabilly Heaven with a lot of history. Emcee and performer Kristi Parker Byers gave just enough details between songs to make the transitions smooth and to keep the momentum that peaked repeatedly, often with the enthusiastic participation of the nearly full house.
For several years now, Centre Stage has fed the Upstate’s musical craving for pop music revues — shows that are basically thematic and familiar songs strung together and held together with as little explanation as possible. We might recall past shows that focused on the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘80s, piano music, and individuals such as Buddy Holly. These are among the theater’s most popular shows and are sure to continue. Next season, we’ll get I Feel Good, a salute to Motown.
What makes this show burn so bright is the infectious enthusiasm of the performers — that along with their strong and versatile voices, on-cue dance steps (such nice work by choreographer Kristofer Parker), and natural enjoyment of what they were doing. The smiles on their faces and onstage chemistry they have with each other easily rubs off on the audience, a great many of whom lived through rockabilly’s ebb and flow evolution.
The cast members are Benjamin Augusta, Lena Bledsoe, Hannah Brooks, James Hall, Grace McGrath, Kristofer Parker, Josh Thomason, Morgan Voke-Thomason, and Byers, who is like the cool big sister in the bunch.
It is surprising how enjoyable and acceptable the re-engineered songs are, considering many of them are branded into our collective memories by the artists who made them famous. Personally, if someone had told I would hear and actually like the song Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On by someone other than Jerry Lee Lewis, I would have been openly skeptical and even closed minded to the possibilities. Yet, here this solid-gold classic is performed by Brooks (my favorite singer in the cast) as it was somewhat originally recorded by Big Maybell. Then just to prove me wrong, it transitioned into how Lewis sang it, this time sung by Hall.
The other two standout songs in the first act is the Buddy Holly medley and Great Ball of Fire. The medley included Peggy Sue (led by Augusta), That’ll Be The Day (by Brooks and the other female singers), and Rave On, ending with a mash-up led by Parker with all-guy harmony. The first act ends on an ultra-high note with Great Balls of Fire and Thomason standing on the upright piano (shades of Jerry Lee), joined by Byers and then various solos interspersed with back-up vocals and harmony.
I do love the Jackson number where husband and wife J. Thomason and M. Voke-Thomas channeled Johnny Cash and June Carter in their classic onstage singing and relationship clash. Voke-Thomas gets the “whole package” award for her onstage personality, dancing, acting, and singing.
The second act was just as jam-packed and delightful as the first, kicking off with Elvis’s Hound Dog and Blue Suede Shoes. Notable performances include Thomason singing Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues and Hall killing it with Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally.
Giving the spotlight to the band in Johnny Got A Boom Boom (by Imelda May), bass player Robert Nance is an absolute marvel hitting the licks.
And girl power is in full throttle when the ladies take on Tainted Love, proving that girls can rock. The end of the show is a pull-out-all-of-the-stops reprise of Rockabilly Rhythm with everyone reaching a fever pitch of musical ecstasy right down to Music Director Chase McAbee’s final glissando.
The list of songs and the various, creative ways they are presented is impressive and extensive. But don’t go see Rockabilly Heaven just for the songs. Go see and hear how these songs are recreated by today’s local performing artists. All of these performers were just unborn stars when much of this music was first made popular, and here they are now reviving the music with fresh perspectives, new energy, and creative spirits that cause even the most jaded baby boomer to stand up for the ovation.
Rockabilly Heaven continues through August 17 at Centre Stage, 501 River St. in Greenville. For tickets, call (864) 233-6733 or visit www.centrestage.org.