BY STEVE WONG
There’s a new COVID playlist in Greenville, and lyrical theatre Glow is rocking it out through Aug. 29 at the Kroc Center.
Rock Opera is one of three shows that are currently running simultaneously in the 2021 Festival Season Program by a theatre company that prides itself on musical works that are socially relevant. It is two hours of headbanging rock ‘n’ roll’s most iconic songs, curated to reflect the social and emotional impact of the virus that has plagued the world for more than a year and killed nearly 4.5 million people. The cast of eight singers and dancers, along with the five-man band and behind-the-scenes professionals, are commended for taking a serious subject, setting it to music, and raising awareness of the pandemic in a wholly different way.
The socially distant and masked audience experience the many moods of COVID in such songs as Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Going to Take It Anymore, Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven, and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? In between the songs and medleys, the punkish cast, dressed mostly in chrome and black, deliver interactive dialog that transitions the thematic songs.
The performers were a bit slow on the take for the first few songs of opening night, Thursday, Aug. 19. However, they found their groove with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and from then on out, it was a rock ‘n’ roll heaven. As a theatre company with its foundation in repertory and opera, Glow at times was showing its roots, especially when Hugo Vera and Marina Harris would change up the well known English lyrics to Italian. Not a bad thing at all; certainly very interesting.
Appropriately, Vera has international standing in opera as the Artistic Director of the Vocal Academy of Orvieto, Italy, and the Executive Director of Lawrence Opera Theatre in Kansas. Soprano Harris is also a world-class talent with notable roles from coast to coast in America and from the Far East to Europe. A current resident of Long Beach, CA, Harris is noted for her Wagenerian repertoire for which she has won many awards.
Another privitoral song of the evening was Seasons of Love taken from the Broadway and worldwide sensation Rent. With the entire singing cast in vocal alignment, Seasons of Love had a naturalness, an innateness, that resounded with the audience. It was also the opportunity for Janelle Odom to shine, especially when a soulful wail was called for. She is a recent graduate of Howard University in musical theatre, and she is heading for the Savannah College of Art & Design this fall. This is her debut with Glow.
Black Pumas’s Colors was another opportunity for DeBryant Johnson to reach low and then reach really high with his steadfast falsetto. Throughout the show, he was often carrying a heavy share of the singing, probably because of his experience with shows such as I Feel Good: A Trip to Motown and Dreamgirls. A graduate of South Carolina’s Anderson University, Johnson is making his debut with Glow.
Performers DeAna Earl, Javy Pagan, and Zachary Wilde are all very suited for this Rock Opera. Individually, their work experiences, career goals, stage presence, and voices are more targeted toward mass appeal, which is certainly on rock ‘n’ roll’s agenda. They have solid and accessible voices that can be stripped down for some of the genre’s rawness. At other times, they are simple and nimble, capable of commercial success and audience appeal.
Earl has been in Greenville for the past years, and her resume includes Chicago, the Addams Family, and 9 to 5. She is a two-time SCNATS (South Carolina chapter of the National Association of Teachers of Singing) winner in Advanced Musical Theatre. Her next stop will be with Proud Mary Theatre Company as Tina in Falsettos.
Pagan has played all the right roles in all the right places in the Upstate, including Rock ‘n’ Roll Gold with Centre Stage, All Shook Up with Greenville Theatre, and In The Heights with Glow. By day he is the Programs Manager with The Children’s Museum of the Upstate.
Wilde is a native of Asheville but has spent the past few years in Nashville chasing his dream. He is a recent graduate of Austin Peay State University with a degree in musical theatre and has pursued vocal jazz as a speciality.
Even though cast member Megan Hannon had minimal singing in Rock Opera, her presence and talent added greatly to the overall enjoyment of the show. By trade, she is a visual artist, but as evident by her performance, her heart belongs to dance. As others sang, she interpreted the songs through her freestyle and ballet-influenced dancing. She is a contemporary and ballet instructor at International Ballet, Vaughn Newman Dance, and Starmakers.
Of all the songs and medleys presented, I found Medleys #3 and #4 to be the most entertaining and thought provoking. This is Me (The Greatest Showman), Born This Way (Lady Gaga), and Purple Rain (Prince) finished a set that focused on social acceptance, a topic that is still making headlines during the pandemic. These were familiar songs that drove home the point that being different is not just okay but cool.
It was Medley #4 that actually turned my head. This group of patriot songs (America The Beautiful, Proud to be an American, Ballad of the Angry American, Rockin’ in the Free World, Born in the USA, and Lift Every Voice and Sing) though sung exceedingly well had words that purposely did not match what we were seeing on stage. Faces that were not radiant with pride, backs were turned, and shoulders slumped. Through arrangement, character development, and acting, instead of wanting to stand up in respect for our country, I felt like taking a knee. COVID has caused many of us to question the very foundation of American life that we are supposed to hold dear and close to our hearts. But as we have watched our nation’s capital come under siege, as we watch good men do bad things, as we watch our loved ones die because of stupid politics, we might just need a new song to redefine what it means to be an American.
Shoutouts to the masked band for exceptional musicality: keyboard #1 by Andrew Welchel, guitar by Zac Bolton, bass guitar by Samuel Kruer, drums by Tom Dolamore. Music Director Christain Elser sang back-up (and one song) and played keyboard #2. His wife Jenna Elser was co-stage director along with choreographer Jenise Cook.
Rock Opera is more than just a bunch of classic hits strung together. It is a curation of modern popular songs selected for their lyrics that express the many emotions and concepts we continue to have during what is now the fourth wave of the COVID 19 pandemic. It is with some fear and trepidation that we the theatre lovers of Upstate South Carolina don our masks and avoid coming within six feet of each other to get our fix of live song and dance. Glow is taking all the right precautions: limiting attendance, distancing the seating, and requiring masks. Rock ‘n’ roll has always been about taking risks, and here is one you should consider taking. It’s worth it.
ROCK OPERA runs August 27 & 28 at 7:30 pm, August 22 & 29 at 3 pm
PASSIONE runs August 25 at 7:30 pm and August 28 at 3 pm
THE JENNA & CHRISTIAN SHOW runs August 26 & 29 at 7:30 pm
Purchase tickets by phone: 864-558-4569 or online at https://glowlyric.com/summer-festival-season/
Performances are at the Fred Collins Performing Arts Center at Greenville’s Kroc Center at 424 Westfield St.