Canada Rocks! A First Act Review

So, I had just spent about an hour writing a long detailed review of Canada Rocks, the new Confederation Centre musical.  I went into detail about those things that I liked (not a lot of things, to be honest) and those things that I didn’t like (the majority of the length of the post).  Just as I was finishing up, a brief power outage caused me to lose it all.  With it was lost my desire to review it again.
But review it I must!

What I liked:
– I thought the band was fantastic.  A really sharp, great, tight band.
– I thought most of the songs were performed really well.  Most of the singers have great voices and overall, they did a great job of singing the songs in the style of the artists who originally performed them.

What I didn’t like:
– The show was waaaaay too long, with waaaay too many songs included.  So long that I couldn’t bear to stay for the second act.  Yes, I left at intermission.  Admittedly, the show I saw was the very first preview performance (a glorified dress rehearsal, I suppose) and I understand that since that performance, the show was scissored and cut to a more managable length.
– The real reason I left, though, wasn’t because of the length, but because of the stuff that took place between the far-too-many songs.  The dialogue and story (hard to call it a story, with plot and all) was terrible and pointless.  It was about some fakey-fake Old Canadian Rocker taking the train across Canada.  He meets up with vain, young Canadian Icon (get it?) starlet who declares all those old Canadian Rock Songs to be Ancient History!  Old Rocker says "Oh Yeah?  Listen to this:  Sooooooo  oooooooo    ooooooo     ooooooooo maaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaa  aaaaaaa!".  They then travel across country in an uninspired, unappealing  travel-rock-ulogue that highlights All The Great Canadian Songs, Old And New!  Along the way, there’s an Entertainment Reporter who checks in with them to see how things are progressing.
-Reporter uses a potentially cool gimmick:  a live video feed, projected onto the two video screens that adorn the wings of the stage.  The coolness of this gimmick, though, was quickly diminished as it became evident that the camera operator wasn’t a cinematographer in any respect.  Most of the live shots were nothing more than unfocused shots of actors asses and the floor and the wings.  When there wasn’t live video, the screens on the side displayed various boring photos and uninteresting stills representing the artists whose songs the performers were singing.  It was very Canada Post Vignettes/Hinterland Who’s Who in that respect.  Very dry and uninspired use of the video elements.
-The set itself was also dry and uninspired.  A too-large platform upstage for the band to play on, a couple of flats that had some colour designs on them, and the absolute puzzle of the set:  a couple of dozen hanging hubcaps.  What?  Why?  Are they supposed to represent travel, like the travelling across the country by train?  Okay, but hubcaps are on cars, you know, not trains.  But, whatever.  Boo on that set design.
-Remember I mentioned how I didn’t like the dialogue between songs?  Here’s why.  First, it was that crappy type of sing-songy, rhyming couplet type shit of dialogue:

And now the train sets down the tracks
Our Rocker’s finished with Halifax
The East is more than bodhrans and fiddles
And more to eat than chowder and viddles
As now where will our next stop be?
The great Rock Town of Shubenacadie.

Just terrible.  (that of course, wasn’t real dialogue from the show, but I think it’s accurate in a satirical way)  I really felt bad for the actors for having to say it.  Secondly, the dialogue was awful because it was irrelevant and pointless.  Because the ‘story’ had no gravitas or import, the dialogue for it was also worthless and unimportant to us, the audience.
– I thought the dancers were wasted.  When I go to see a musical (I guess this is more a Musical Revue, though?) I expect to see a bit of dance.  I’m not a big fan of dance, but I do enjoy it every so often.  I believe when I allow myself to enjoy it, I can usually ‘get it’.   Not so with Canada Rocks, though.  The real problem with it (from my admittedly neophyte perspective) was that there didn’t seem to be any direction in the choreography.  People were dancing whatever moves they wanted, it seemed, whenever they wanted.  I can’t believe I’m about to type this but:  Would it have killed you to include even one artsy-fartsy interpretive dance for even one of the songs?
– That leads me to another fairly big complaint I had:  I was really bugged by the lacksadaisacal way in which the actors seemed to wander around the stage, onto the stage, off the stage, at apparently random on bizarre times.  This applied to bit actors/dancers right up to the main players of the show.  Someone would be singing a song, more or less alone on stage and various people would kind of wander out, kind of listen for a moment or two, then wander off, or across the stage…??  What? The?  Hell? Was? That?  Oftentimes, when people were on stage for any period of time, (to ‘dig’ the music, I assume, like fans or groupies) they’d eventually end up looking like they were bored.  Groups of three or four people, sitting on the stage, or leaning against the band’s platform, looking like they’re not paying attention to what’s going on.  Was that just me projecting my disinterest onto them?  Who knows, but they often looked bored.  Too many people needlessly on stage doing nothing really, just being there.  I didn’t like that.
-Apart from the one segment of comedy which I saw,  the show is totally devoid of humour.  I don’t mean there aren’t enough jokes.  I mean the show takes itself and its subject far too seriously.  Loosen the hell up.  It’s a show about rock and roll, and it’s presented in a kind of button-down shirt style.  Rip the shirts off a bit and flash your wangs and tits! (metaphorically speaking)
– There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the list of songs and to why they were performed when they were.  Song selection seemed totally arbitrary and pointless.  There was a vague east to west thing happening, but that concept was broken so often as to become valueless.  Bryan Adams and Sk8trBoi were performed, for instance, while the Rock Train was in Atlantic Canada.
-And of course, there were way too many songs.  In the first act.  Show started at 7:30 and first act was over at 9:10.  That’s one big act.  Again, though, I understand that cuts were made, so perhaps it’s better now?  Unless, though, they cut a pile of songs, and totally cut or rewrite the ridiculous between songs crapola, the show is still a pile of trouble, in my opinion.
Which is too bad, because there is some incredible talent in the production.  Only a few of the songs in the one act I saw were on the down side of good.  Most were fantastic.
As the act progressed, and as it continued to Not End, I started getting angry at the performers for singing another song.  About three quarters of the way through, every time a new song was started, I convinced myself that it was the final song of the act.  Still, though, they’d segue into another and I’d get angry again as they continued to Take Forever!  Near the end of the act, it seemed to have taken so bloody long that I had started to believe that they combined the two acts into one and were going straight through to the end.  No such luck.  Intermission came and it wasn’t a difficult decision to make for the exits.
During a couple of the intervals when I wasn’t wishing the act would end, I began thinking of the ways I’d improve the show.  Here’s what I came up with.
1) Perform the show at the MacKenzie.  This is not a MainStage show.  It just isn’t.  How great it’d be in a more intimate setting, especially if they improved the story.
2) Improve the story.  Do this by giving the peformers actual motives and conflicts and plot progressions. Give the actors something to invest some emotion into.  The bland, humourless fluff that sits between the songs now is pretty awful.  It wouldn’t take much effort to inject some life into the script.  How about picking and choosing songs a bit more carefully, and make the contents/lyrics of the songs part of the story/plot.  Or not.
3) Failing that, I’d scrap entirely the between songs shit, and totally make it a song-fest.  "Canada’s got some great songs, folks.  Here they are for the next two hours, performed by some pretty talented people."  Each night, mix up the playlist a little bit.
4) Don’t make it a show that Senior Citizens might enjoy.  I know they’re an important demographic to the Centre, with the bus tours and whatnot, but designing the show as one everyone might like just turns it into one which nobody will like.  Get some balls, Centre, and produce a show that has some balls.
5) Change the name.  Canada Rocks! as it stands now, is a lie.  A suggested name for the show as it was the night I saw it:  Canada Has Turned Up The Volume On Some Songs Made Popular By Canadian Pop Entertainers And Presents It In A Bland Non-Threatening Way For All To Enjoy But None To Love

8 Comments

  1. I like your idea of a musical with a plotline using the greatest hits of Canadian music in the intimate surrounds of the MacKenzie Theatre… oh wait, they’ve already done that, in 1989, with “Not Available in Stores.” I don’t recall it being a resounding success. (Which is not to argue that old concepts, reinvented, cannot be successes.)

    On the other hand, a musical of the greatest hits of Canadian music has worked, in the past, on the mainstage. Back in the early 80s, with Alan Lund’s “Singin’ and Dancin’ Tonight.” It was a huge success.

    Of course, Alan Lund was a master at creating variety shows, such as was “Tonight.” Is anyone interested in seeing variety show-style entertainment, nowadays? Particularly, as you so aptly point out, the younger demographic?

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  2. I totally disagree.

    I really liked the show, it was different and fresh, yes it was long, but I think it was one of the better shows they have had in a long time.

    When I went in I wasn’t expecting any acting, the little bits of acting and comedy broke it up, my only complanint that was some songs didn’t make it in, but I guess that would make it even longer.

    My 2 cents.

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  3. What’s with having to stand for the arrival of the GD Premier and “Lord” Tim Banks, et al?! Since when did we start grovelling for public servants and business tycoons. Fucking ridiculous! RIDICULOUS!! They can all honourably kiss my ass for their vanity.

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  4. Yani, I think you’re standing more for the lieutenant governor than Tim Banks. Banks just paid fifty grand for his ticket, so he’s allowed to sit next to the guy.

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  5. You came to a preview…hence the reason real reviewers never review previews and always review “Opening Night”. Reviewers also have the decency to watch the entire show, despite it being short or long.

    I think there is some validity to your comments about a clearer storyline and cleaning up the writing, etc. In fact the show could have probably used another workshop. But also recognize that this show doesn’t claim to be any huge “theatrical” show…it is like you said a “Revue” and all revues are loosely tied together by a storyline.

    I am happy that they took this show to the mainstage and disagree with your comment that you think this is a “Mack” show. The alternative was to not have a second show in the season at all. The crowds love seeing this show on the mainstage and the response has been phenomenal.

    The show has been trimmed with each preview and is significantly shorter…which seemed to be your chief concern.

    I think you have the bones here of a good review, most of your comments have validity to them and your comments about the talent of the performers are appreciated. Just consider that when you take cheap shots and attempt wit, it often only cheapens your review.

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  6. Thanks, cast member, for your comment.
    I believe I made it clear that my comments were based on the very first preview and that improvements (cuts, anyway) made likely would discount somewhat my main beef. I agree that it is unfair to review previews and only the first half of one at that. However, that’s what I saw, and that’s all I can comment on.
    I stand by my points, cheap shots, attempted wit and all.
    But I do thank you for taking a rational approach at refuting me.

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  7. I think the blurring of the lines between musical theatre and musical revue/variety show was a big part of my problem with the show. On their own, I enjoyed most of the song performances -in fact there were some great moments. And Wade’s comedic interludes were pretty funny… its just that everything came out of left field.
    The rhyming narrator newscaster was a really uninspired way of creating some kind of a narrative, as was the train crossing the country (especially since, as Rob points out, the show doesn’t follow any kind of geographic progression.)
    I also found it tough to watch rock veteran Terry Hatty playing a very one dimensional Canadian rock music veteran character…when both he and Matt Minglewood have earned such amazing stage presence from their years on the scene. I’m sure they could both tell stories that would be way more entertaining than watching the “rock veteran” vs “pop icon” interactions. I suppose if everybody just got up on stage and told stories and sang songs…it really would lose all pretext of being musical theatre…it would look a lot like the Maud Whitmore concert. But what I saw was basicly a Maud Whitmore concert with some clumsy narrative devices slapped on top. Admittedly, I also saw the 1st preview (I stayed for the whole thing), and I’m sure it will get tighter and smoother. I’ve talked to a lot of people who really loved the show…maybe I just don’t like muscial revues.

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