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By Judith Cookis Rubens
Posted: Aug. 29, 2012 at 9:58 p.m.
Rock band reunion tours are safe bets for summer festivals and county fairs.
But it's quite unusual for summer theaters – often home to frothy musicals and show tunes – to turn down the lights, pump up the fog, and unleash drowning guitar licks and raunchy lyrics.
For one week only, Barn Theatre audiences can witness a merger of theater and concert with its original rock musical "Raunch and Roll," written and directed by Barn producer Brendan Ragotzy. It stars Ragotzy's wife, Barn actress Penelope Alex, as Roxy Starr, a hard-edged rocker coming to terms with her past. Original music, in the vein of classic '80s rock, also stars.
Roxy hit it big in 1985 as a bad girl rocker, with a foul mouth and a love of booze and bad men. Fresh off a hit album and still on top, Roxy suddenly withdraws from performing and public life. That's where Ragotzy's part-drama, part-concert show starts. We learn early on that Roxy (born Nia to a strict Greek Orthodox family) is dying. This news forces her to rethink her life and relationships, including a rocky one with her former bandmates back in Michigan, where she got her start.
With her manager friend, Carl (Eric Parker), along for the ride, Roxy returns to her Kalamazoo roots to make things right with her old band, her disapproving mother, and her 10-year-old son, who was adopted by Roxy's ex-bandmate, Tommy Tucker (Roy Brown). She tries to convince the band to play one last concert with her, as an apology for leaving them in the dust so many years ago.
The production, while filled with intriguing characters, is an odd combo of somber, slow-moving drama (Act One), jammed up against an explosive concert production (Act Two). For all its talk of rock, the only music audiences hear in Act One is recorded snippets between numerous scene changes.
Ragotzy tells Roxy's rise to fame through a creative video introduction. Then he uses 17 short scenes – pulled off with surprisingly efficient set changes – to fill us in on Roxy's troubled relationships and her inability to connect or find love.
It's too many scenes for the first half, and the pacing dragged slightly on opening night. Some scenes connect better than others, too. Among the standouts are Roxy's conversations with her aloof mother (a stellar Sharon Williams); her flirtations with ex-love Tommy; and her visit to a hometown radio station where she surprises an elated DJ (Nicholas J. Pearson). Other scenes, mostly used to cement Roxy's raunchy reputation, feel somewhat stale and forced.
One major exception is the funny scene at a local restaurant, where bandmates (played by Brown, Jamey Grisham, Charlie King, Troy Benton, and Scott Marcus) chide each other before a tense reunion with Roxy. The banter feels genuine and heartfelt.
Because of all the buildup about Roxy's raw talent and professionalism, Penelope Alex has a lot to live up to in the farewell concert – aka the second half of the show. Her hard-edged Roxy has just enough soft spots, and her husky vocals are perfectly suited for this genre of music. She puts on quite the show, including revving up the audience in a sing-along. At times, however, her vocals are drowned out by the musicians behind her, leaving the lyrics a bit puzzling.
Roy Brown has a nice turn as Tommy, the family guy living out his dream of playing the big time. Emily Fleming plays his long-suffering wife with perfect flashes of jealousy and pity, while Eric Parker is a calming force as Roxy's manager and confidante.
Band members make this show come alive. The band is led by Troy Benton, a longtime Barn orchestra member who penned some of the songs, and composed and directed music. Lead guitarist Benton, alongside Brown, Grisham, Marcus on drums and King on bass, truly feel like an '80s group reunited for one last show.
Their camaraderie and rock sound are infectious. You'll get your ticket's worth just listening to Benton's memorable guitar riffs and watching jamming band members try to outplay one another.
The five-song concert showcases tunes like "Difference," penned by Gary Cherone of Van Halen, and a touching rock ballad, "Stand or Fall," co-written by Richard Marx. Benton and Ragotzy teamed up for the catchy title song, "Raunch and Roll." If you're a fan of high-octane '80s rock, you won't be disappointed.
If you like a little more ambiguity and complexity in your theater, "Raunch and Roll" will fall short. Roxy Starr is a compelling character, but her conflicts get resolved too easily and predictably. The script and plot only scratch the surface of these rockers, but the music satisfies.
SHOW DETAILS: "Raunch and Roll" continues at the Barn Theatre, 13351 W. M-96, Augusta, daily through Sept. 2. Tickets: $34. For information: 269-731-4121 or www.barntheatre.com.
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