It hasn’t been easy for musical-theater makers to harness the lightning-in-a-bottle power and presence of the live rock performance. In the nearly 50 years since Hair minted the genre, precious few rock musicals have convincingly navigated the vast reaches of cultural space that separate the very different planets responsible for the sublimating Dionysian power of rock and the structured poetic logic of dramatic narrative. As a rule, actors can’t rock, and rockers don’t act.
Which is why the significant revelation of Parallel Worlds, the intriguing experimental rock musical by Brandon Beckner (score and book) and Steve Sobel (lyrics) now playing in Sherman Oaks, is the exhilarating degree to which the half-film/half-live stage hybrid succeeds at delivering rock without necessarily cohering as the backstage meta-musical it strives to be.
That’s because Beckner and Sobel (with lyricist Paola Jimenez), whose backgrounds straddle music and movies rather than the theater, turn out to be extraordinarily credible songwriters. The 20-tune original score of moody romantic ballads, swaggering anthems and high-octane rockers could easily grace a Viper Room set list on a Saturday night. Additionally, rather than using trained actors, director Matthew McCray has gone outside the musical-theater ranks to cast veterans from the local club scene as the story’s rock-world musicians/characters.
Real-life singer-songwriter Cassidy Catanzaro (formerly with New York’s all-female alt-country Antigone Rising) plays Tabitha, the lead belter of a struggling retro-metal band that has been hired to score the movie projected onstage (on designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s assemblage of monitors and projection screens). Ryan Hudson, the real-life frontman for L.A. hard rockers Love and a .38, is Miles, Tabitha’s recently ex-lover and the band’s co-lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. Braden Lyle (lead guitar), Angelica Abrams (keyboards and vocals), Julia Lage (bass and vocals) and Mike Odabashian (drums) fill out the ensemble.
The book’s supranatural conceit follows Tabitha’s discovery that as the band sets down the movie score’s tracks, the emotional colorings of the songs alter the onscreen love story about aspiring artist J.B. (Shawn Reaves) and true love Ella (Marci Miller). J.B. wavers between becoming a New York art superstar or being with the stubbornly L.A.-rooted Ella. (Tim Gray directed the film, which was shot by Keith DeCristo.) Soon Tabitha and Miles are working out their own unfinished personal business by dueling onstage to determine the onscreen lovers’ fate: Tabitha’s wistful, neo-folk romantic ballads bring the lovers together; Miles’ cynical and raucous, Zeppelin-esque rockers push them apart.
All the players have serious recording and club-rock chops, and both Catanzaro and Hudson prove themselves powerfully soulful and pitch-perfect song interpreters (Abrams and Lyle are equally impressive on their solos in act two’s “Anarchy.”) The band’s live concert is a tour de force.
And though Beckner has his music dueling for the soul of the onscreen narrative, the far more compelling duel is ontological and has to do with live presence and the fascinating overlap between the metonymic world of the onscreen fiction and the metaphoric “reality” enacted live onstage. In the end the battle is no contest: The band rocks, the acting does not. And what’s astonishing is the degree to which that doesn’t matter.
CAP Studio, 13752 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks; through June 26. parallelworldsexperience.com.
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