REVIEW: Centre Stage Shows How to Rock Out in ‘Final Countdown’

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Centre Stage in Greenville mines the fertile decade of decadence for the company’s annual music show in The Final Countdown. From hard rock bands to the pop solo superstars of the 1980s, this show has it all and boasts a high-octane, energetic cast and band that’s guaranteed to have you dancing and singing along to a slew of radio-friendly songs that have stood the test of time.

Two veteran performers Kristofer Parker and Josh Thomason return with an all-new crop of talented entertainers: Miranda Harrison, Meg Jones, Drake King and Ashley Wettlin.

The Final Countdown, named for the synth-rock anthem by one-hit wonder Europe, makes an all-too brief introduction with the title song’s opening bars played by Andy Welchel on the synthesizer before launching into a full-throttled version of Prince’s 1999 with the cast members making their entrance.

Directed and choreographed by Parker and music directed by Chase McAbee (yes, there is one Elton John number from his 1980s songbook), The Final Countdown is fast-paced and familiar like comfy food for the soul.

The setlist is pretty evenly divided among both male and females artists of the period with several creative gender switches that surprisingly rival the original. One case in point: Harrison, with her shades of Christina Aguilera charmed the audience with her incredible range from Whitney Houston’s bubbly “How Will I Know?” to the powerful rendition of the anthem of a generation “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi. She actually was my favorite performer of the evening and perhaps the most athletic and experienced dancer of the bunch save Parker himself.

Parker is always a solid performer and delivers in every move in The Final Countdown from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” (sporting a red leather jacket) to actually out-Tina-ING his duet partner Meg Jones in Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best,” in a beautifully-paired vocal delight that makes an encore appearance at the end of the show.

Jones lands a rousing and soulful “Tell It to My Heart” by the oft-forgotten Taylor Dane and then again

with crowd-pleasing power ballads by women: Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (with Thomason) and with Harrison, Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet,” a tune that has popped up in other Centre Stage rock shows over the years.

Thomason – adorning a leopard print scarf a la Jon Bon Jovi and David Lee Roth – is a natural crooner but flexes his rock muscles here in a pair of Journey hits in “Dreams” and again with the other lads in “Any Way You Want It,” and again in a thrilling “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” by The Police.

Journey, by the way has three songs in this eclectic setlist but unlike other artists featured in trilogy/medley format such as Madonna and Whitney, these are spread through the evening because each one has smashing guitar solo in spotlight masterfully played by Shawn Allen/Shannon Cox.

And hats off to Parker and McAbee for including a triple bounty of excellent tunes by the overlooked rock band Huey Lewis and the News with “The Power of Love,” “If This is It,” and “Stuck With You,” which all were musical fodder for the trumpet and saxophone players in the band: Ron Davis/Dave Kaiser and Bruce Caldwell/Jon Pominville respectively.

Wettlin makes her Centre Stage debut in The Final Countdown and sports a partial wedding train in the first act which I immediately thought foreshadowed one of the biggest pop hits of the ‘80s – “Like a Virgin.” And Wettlin dazzled in this perfect pop composition by Madonna, as well as “Holiday” and another signature song that is rarely covered, “Vogue.” The number, sung by the ladies, begins amazingly with Welchel’s faithful synth and is seductive and wondrously choreographed with lighting by Paul Kwok. Unfortunately, the arrangement/instrumentation substitutes brass instruments for the other synth parts so the electro nature of the song isn’t fully realized and thus, was the only disappointing tune of the evening.

This is also Drake King’s first production at Centre Stage, but I have seen him over the years in musical theatre in such productions as Bye Bye Birdie at Mill Town Players. His “Pour Some Sugar on Me” (and the band’s) was one of the finest covers I have ever heard, as was Journey’s “Lights.”

A great rock music show is only as good as the live band behind the performers. And Center Stage always hires skilled musicians that have as much fun as the singers: in addition the aforementioned folks, Greg Day as bandleader, Jordan Hanner on bass, Kevin Heuer on drums and Meghan Reimers also on the keys at some performances.

And with a rock show opening in December, a few holiday selections are on the setlist, including a couple of dynamite numbers – one by the boys and one by the ladies.

The Final Countdown also features scenic design by Rick Connor, costumes by Wyatt Duncan and stage management by Eilidh McKinnon.

The Final Countdown continues through January 9 at Centre Stage, 501 River St. In Greenville. For tickets, visit centrestage.org or call the box office at (864) 774-5618.

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