Loud and Long
As the after-dinner crowd files back in to Heritage Square Music Hall, a three-piece band plays several bouncy tunes. Strains of "All of Me" segue into an instrumental hoedown that sounds like it's from Smokey and the Bandit. The down-home, carnival-like atmosphere, which is part South Dakota Corn Palace, part The Last Picture Show, quickly proves infectious. When the dinner theater's cheery emcee, T.J. Mullin, pokes his head through the stage curtain and greets the audience at the beginning of Loud: The Next Generation, you start to wonder: Are we about to have some good old-fashioned...fun?
If you can stand three hours' worth of impressions -- some of them watered down, others over the top, a couple hilariously dead-on -- of rock icons from the '60s, '70s and '80s, the answer is yes, with a decidedly lowercase "y." The three-act musical revue, written, directed by and starring the versatile, affable, limelight-loving Mullin, centers on a small group of high school graduates (the nine-person cast) who periodically reunite (over three acts of 45-minutes each) to perform three decades' worth of popular songs (pasted together by lame snippets of dialogue that "cover" the many costume changes). These are the songs that defined an entire generation and probably always will -- a secular liturgy of sorts that reawakens personal memories for anyone over the age of, ahem, 35.
While some of the melodies come unchained -- the show would move along better and be funnier if a few songs were shortened and combined with others, à la the medleyish format that caps Act Three -- there's not a weak link to be found among the performers, many of whom play musical instruments and move to the groove while belting out an endless stream of golden oldies (piano player N. Randall Johnson, drummer Alex Crawford, bass player Ron Erickson and singer/musicians Rory Pierce, Annie Dwyer, Johnette Toye, Renato Lunnon, Mark Jenkins and Mullin make up the cast).
Overall, Mullin gives more play to rock and roll's siren calls than folk's rallying cries, as the characters' reaction to the show's opening number, "If I Had a Hammer," demonstrates. Quickly shuffling off the moral coil made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary, the Catholic high school grads launch into renditions of tunes that they wish they'd been allowed to name as their class song instead. Like "Born to Be Wild," "The Sounds of Silence," "House of the Rising Sun," "The Beat Goes On" (which features Dwyer as a perfectly hair-tossing Cher) and James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)."
The feelings of nostalgia start to fade at the beginning of Act Two, however, when we're transported to the high school chums' college days (and the world of horrendous '70s fashions). There, amid paisley outfits, shaggy hairdos and really ugly furniture, the gang warbles an a cappella quartet by the Eagles, gives voice to John Lennon's "Imagine," pays "tribute" to the fluff of Barry Manilow (who, to the chagrin of those who can't stand the man or his music, gets off relatively easy), revives one of John Denver's Rocky Mountain anthems and even allows for an appearance by Dionne Warwick. Throughout, there's a relative absence of seminal groups such as the Stones, folk singers such as Jim Croce, and techno-country groups such as the Charlie Daniels Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd -- musicians of gritty substance whose works, it seems, defy parody, which runs fairly rampant here.
By the time Act Three's look at the '80s rolls around, it's clear that the audience is in for a long evening -- about 45 minutes too long, it turns out. Still, the performers' energy never flags; they exude heart, soul, imagination and, at times, virtuosity. They're also not without humor, as proved by the many interactions with patrons. (At a recent performance, an older gentleman seated in the front row could have been forgiven if he had chosen to abandon his date and hook up with Dwyer following one of her many mid-song advances.) And the audience clearly relishes seeing parts of their past briefly come alive in the form of music-video re-enactments (including one that pays homage to those marvelous mutants of musical devolution, Devo). True, Mullin uses a cheap ploy to get a standing ovation at the end, but the show's excellent production values and the performers' easygoing ways make for an enjoyable night out, especially for middle-aged folks celebrating birthdays: Before the show begins, Mullin announces the celebrants' names and good-naturedly suggests that each is merely turning that ripe old age of 24.
In that spirit, no one at the Music Hall will probably mind if a few song-weary patrons (after settling their bill and tipping their hardworking servers, of course) similarly choose to shave a decade or so off Loud by making an early exit.
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