by John Stoltenberg
When a great rock concept album gets transposed to live theater (think Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Green Day’s American Idiot), it’s usually the music that’s the real star of the show. All the rest is packaging, which can be cool—optical sizzle for the audio steak. But at the end of the day, the unadorned studio recording on a CD or mp3 player still offers the rock fan a self-sufficient and thoroughly satisfying aural pleasure.
So it is with British composer Richard Campbell‘s progressive-metal rock-opera concept album Frankenstein, which we can thank Landless Theater Co. for discovering and bringing across the pond. It’s bloody good. You can sample some tracks here and you can preview the album here:
In the Landless production now at Gala, there’s a kickass band performing Campbell’s dense and driven score. They’re upstage, kind in shadows, but they absolutely dominated the show: Charles Johnson (piano), Lance Larue (drums), Brenna St. Ours (backing vocals), Ray Shaw (bass), music director Jack Sossman (rhythm guitar, theremin, synth), Alex Vallejo (lead guitar). At first I didn’t realize how freaking good they were, because there was so much else going on. So consider yourself tipped off. Their performance alone is worth the price of a ticket. Actually, more.
If you focus on the powerful and wild wall of prog metal they construct, it helps put into context all the rest that’s going on, which, it turns out, is a lot like a staged concert. And all the rest did not rise to the musicians’ high bar. In particular, having listened a bit to the music beforehand and gotten a sense of the rich texture of the lyrics, I was disappointed last night at the Gala that the sound system (or its settings) obscured so much of the vocalists’ words. That’s par for the course at a regular rock concert, of course, but this earnest and inventive production deserved better. [Note added June 25: I’ve been informed that the sound system at Gala is currently configured in such a way that the first three rows are not good seats from which to hear the mix. Not knowing that, I was sitting in the front row. So be advised!]
A program note about Landless mentions that its mission centers on “building new audiences by revitalizing interest in live theatre.” Obviously with Frankenstein, this nervy company—which this year marks its tenth birthday—has thought outside the box of theater fare for typical audiences. Way outside. Who knew there was a community of metal heads in DC? Well guess what? That’s where Landless looked to find its pickup band. And damn did they discover greatness.