Anyway, even though we got a reduced price as a group from the New Neighbors League, I was not overly fond of the “Rock Twist” show we saw the other night. In part, this was because I felt I was misled as to the nature of the performance.
The event was advertised as: “Classic rock tunes with a big band twist; big band standards with a rock and roll twist. Backed by a full horn section and an all-star lineup of Omaha’s finest musicians, Billy’s brand new show will have Playhouse audiences rocking like never before. Frank Sinatra? Check. The Beatles? Check. Harry Connick, Jr.? Check. Billy Joel? Check! Fresh re-arrangements of rock and jazz standards performed as only Billy can. It’s rock with a twist.”
I read this to mean that this was a show that featured songs by the likes of Sinatra, Harry Connick, Jr., Billy Joel, etc. I did expect some Beatles and some Buddy Holly because Billy is best known for shows of music from those performers, he even does shows composed of only their material. So, I believed that I was in for an evening of standards with (perhaps) a bit of a rock flavor. Well, there were a couple of Sinatra tunes, I think a Billy Joel and a Harry Connick, Jr., so it wasn’t exactly a lie, but the vast majority of the 23 song evening was full-out, full-blast rock and roll, which was often near the threshold of pain for my ears. There were some moments I really enjoyed. The young lady, primarily the piano accompanist, did a really nice job with “Downtown,” the Petula Clark song from about 1964, but, mostly, I thought it was pretty loud, somewhat repetitive and not terribly strongly performed.
I mean, the Beatles were almost always pretty articulate – you could understand the words, even if you couldn’t always make sense of them. That was not always the case during this performance, even of Beatles’ songs, and it was more pronounced on a fair amount of the other stuff. The Sinatra stuff was pretty clean, but I think Billy would have been shot if it hadn’t been. Frank was NEVER hard to understand. It may, of course, just be that I’m getting old, but I think my hearing is still reasonably good. For me, just as in the theatre, I LIKE TO UNDERSTAND THE WORDS! When I can’t, I’m unlikely to be impressed. Still, that’s enough about the music, which wasn’t awful, just not really what I expected.
My biggest complaints about the production were tech related. There was no “costume” designer indicated on the program, although Billy did make three costume changes (nobody else changed even once). I really have no idea why he felt this was necessary, as concert performers, at least in my experience, often don’t change costumes at all, let alone multiple times, unless their costumes are a part of their show, as with Cher, for example. Frank might loosen his tie, or even take his jacket off, at least when he was really “cooking,” but I don’t think he changed his outfit completely as a regular thing.
In any event, Billy started off in a suit. Not a BAD suit, it just appeared to be considerably tighter than seemed desirable. He just looked uncomfortable. Still, that was obviously what he wanted, because even when he pulled the button on his coat loose doing some of his gyrations, he immediately rebuttoned it when the song ended. Then, after several numbers, he went off stage and took off his coat and tie. This could have actually helped, considering most of the material was getting more into “rock,” except that the shirt seemed to be just as tight as the coat had been. I found it hard to enjoy a performance by someone who just plain looked uncomfortable.
For the start of the second act, he had on a different shirt, which he sweated through almost immediately. Okay, it probably WAS hot on the stage (lots of lights and lots of physical activity), and this shirt didn’t seem quite as tight, but a different choice would probably have been wiser, especially since it was just a different shirt, which didn’t seem to reflect a change of style, or mood. To end the evening, he put on a plain, colored tee shirt and fairly well-fitting jeans, so he actually looked more comfortable, although he did comment several times during the performance as to how hot he felt (we could tell this from the sweat-stained clothing), as if that proved how hard he was working, so he must be good. I confess that I wasn’t impressed. I find it hard to believe that any experienced costumer would have thought his choices in clothing were wise. I didn’t really mind that he felt the need to change clothes, although I didn’t see the need, but it would have been nice for the changes to reflect the material in some way, rather than just be changes of clothes.
I thought the lighting was awful. Yes, I could see the “star” pretty well most of the time, but even when the band (eight pieces: piano, guitar, bass, drums, two saxes, trumpet and trombone, NOT the Count Basie Band, nor Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”) was all lit, I found the lack of evenness in the lighting distracting. This was especially true of the bass player, who was placed about on centerline, hence right behind the lead singer most of the time. He was quite clearly more dimly lit than the other players around him. The three backup singers weren’t involved in every number, so they came and went and weren’t too distracting as they faded in and out and were on and off.
What really got to me was the use of EIGHT moving lights. Apparently five of them were ganged together over center stage in such a way that either none were lit, or all were. Since they didn’t always all have the same color, they seemed to be separately programmed, but I’m not a moving light programmer, so I don’t know. They did always all seem to be on or off (mostly on). Anyway, these lights were NOT evenly spaced across the stage and some spent a lot of time lighting the haze (which I guess was intended to create a smoky, “nightclub” atmosphere).
This, of course, emphasized the fact that the spacing was uneven, which I found quite distracting, especially since there was no obvious reason for it. The other three moving lights varied (as I remember them) between being backlight for some of the upstage musicians and gobo patterns on the simple (fairly effective) curtain backdrop during the first act. They didn’t really bother me much. During the second act, the backdrop was changed to a rear projection screen which was filled with (often quite distractingly mediocre and repetitive) rear projections. They bothered me a lot, but at least those three moving lights were just used as backlights.
Then there were the light-up show logo panels on the front of the seated musicians stands. As many numbers ended with a total blackout (a reliable, if old and cheap trick, which tires me out when overused [as it was here]), these, like the rest of the lights onstage simply cut out. After all, a blackout is (and should be) fairly easy to achieve, you just turn off all the power. But, when the lights came back up, these panels didn’t dim up, they turned on full blast in some sort of sequence which wasn’t quite random but was certainly not together nor (rationally) synchronized. Again, probably because of spending much of my career working in tech, I found this sloppy and quite distracting.
Finally, the overall lighting scheme didn’t seem particularly flexible, or the designer’s imagination seemed pretty limited, at least to me. There were many, many cues, not necessarily making any sense with the material, and to the point that they quickly became quite repetitive, at least to me. One really doesn’t HAVE to change the lights every few notes (or beats). I know this has become accepted in musicals, but I still find it distracting when it’s overdone. A soft ballad (they do still occur, if infrequently) really doesn’t need a couple of dozen major light changes, at least in my book. Sometimes less is more!
All things considered, I think the lighting for this production had many examples of the “We CAN do this, so let’s DO it!” sort of thinking which I’ve never really understood. Yes, I did spend a lot of time working with limited equipment in underequipped theatres, but I think that (at least on occasion) my lighting was fairly effective because I had a specific reason behind each choice I made. I felt I HAD to achieve good, appropriate visibility and, once that was achieved, whatever was left could be put to use for specific effects or moments, with the priority being given to those which were most important to the story or which contributed the most to the show. All too often, throughout this whole show, I got the feeling that the designer was just trying to show how “flashy” the lights could be, not how effectively they could support the performance. I thought that was too bad.
That’s not to imply that I am against using the equipment one has, or can obtain. But, instruments (moving or otherwise), dimmers, cues, etc., are tools, and not all tools are appropriate for all occasions. Try hanging a lighting instrument with a hammer! A hammer’s a good tool, but not for that purpose. Use the tools you have, but make sure that their use makes sense to the audience, not just as an excuse to say “Look at my fancy stuff!”
At the end of the evening (with yet another very loud number ending in a blackout) most of the audience leapt to its feet to give the show a standing ovation. I confess that I was slower to my feet than many others, because I really wasn’t all that highly impressed. Yes, I did enjoy much of the program, although I thought a lot of it could have been improved. It just wasn’t the sort of thing I would normally think of as being “standing ovation” quality. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t really all that special, at least in my book.
However, this got me to wondering when a standing ovation got to be an expectation, rather than a reward for excellence? I tend to resort to Wikipedia a lot for quick references (as some readers may have noted), but this seems another case where that might be appropriate. It says, “A standing ovation is a form of applause where members of a seated audience stand up while applauding after extraordinary performances of particularly high acclaim.” It goes on, “Standing ovations are considered to be a special honor.” This is what I’ve always considered them to be.
It seems to me that the idea of the standing ovation has become considerably devalued by the notion that every performance is worthy of such. I do understand the idea that parents want to show their pride in their child’s performance in the school or church play, but that really doesn’t mean that EVERY performance deserves “special” recognition. I confess that I think it’s too bad that this seems to have become the case. My feelings probably aren’t going to change the practice, but I do think that it would be nice to single out really excellent work for special recognition, in spite of the fact that some work is adequate and appropriate, some is not, and, occasionally, some is truly superior. That’s not a statement of worth of the individual involved, but a recognition that while “All Men (Humans) are created equal” (at least in the eyes of the Creator) not all can (or, at least, do) do everything equally well. That’s just the way it is.