— The cast of Red Rock Diner. Photo: Emily Cooper
RED ROCK DINER
If those eloquent syllables mean anything to you, then you’re old enough to have been there at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe, if you’re a Vancouver native, you can even remember Red Robinson’s early days as a pioneering rock deejay on CKWX radio.
If so, you might get a little nostalgic at Dean Regan’s Red Rock Diner, the Arts Club’s summer show.
If not, if Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” is only something you’ve heard on your parents’ or grandparents’ stereo, or never heard at all, then Red Rock Diner may just seem a watered-down Happy Days with local colour.
Either way, this isn’t a show that’s likely to awaken your enthusiasm for 1950s music or make you think, “Wow, live theatre! What a rich and fruitful art form.”
A musical revue, Red Rock Diner has no plot, characters (other than Red Robinson), meaningful structure or ideas. It strings together late-’50s pop songs of varying quality in uneven arrangements, delivered by a cast and band that are often very good but sometimes not. Even Valerie Easton, the city’s finest choreographer of musical theatre and one of its best directors, can’t make this Diner cook.
What structure there is is provided by young deejay Robinson (Neil Minor), broadcasting his Teen Canteen radio show in Act One and emceeing the King Edward High School 1957 grad dance in Act Two.
The real Red Robinson was a genuine pioneer who introduced western Canada to the revolutionary new music being made by Elvis and other early rockers, many of whom he interviewed when they performed in Vancouver. You can hear his 1957 conversation with Buddy Holly backstage at the Georgia Auditorium on YouTube. Robinson was inaugurated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
In the show he tells corny jokes, sets up commercials for 7-Up, Ward’s Record Store, or “The Best Buick Yet,” which we hear in snatches of sung harmony by the cast or see in images projected on a video screen, announces the songs and sometimes sings them. He also drops place names–4th & McDonald, Chilliwack–and factoids (a house in Kits sells for $15,000) that are meant to generate laughs the way Surrey references used to, and essentially stand in for content.
Steven Greenfield’s band really rocks out on instrumentals like “Rebel Rouser” and “Tequila,” with Jeff Gladstone on lead guitar. Brett Ziegler is a standout on honkin’ sax and does a fine Big Bopper singing “Chantilly Lace.” Greenfield ‘s Jerry Lee Lewis piano work on “Great Balls of Fire” is impressive. Mathew J. Baker’s stand-up bass and Todd Biffard’s drums round out the five-piece ensemble.
But Greenfield offers up a corny arrangement of “Teenager in Love,” the band seems to have tempo problems with “Book of Love,” and their “Get a Job” sounds a little like a polka.
The singers can all sing–and dance–but they don’t all have the rock ‘n’ roll gene. Colin Sheen is a lithe and exciting dancer, and he kills with a version of “Cry,” a 1951 hit for pre-rocker Johnny Ray. There’s not much rock or roll, though, in his performances of “Get a Job” and “Splish Splash.”
The gender divide was pretty wide in the 1950s, but do the girls really have to be looking at dresses while the boys ride motorcycles? Anna Kuman and Robyn Wallis get the lamest songs–“Where the Boys Are,” “Stupid Cupid.” Lots of Connie Francis but no Shirelles or Chantels. And it would be nice to see Wallis do something other than the breathy bubble-headed blonde routine.
The best things in the show are Zachary Stevenson and Tafari Anthony. Recalling his breakout performance in the Arts Club’s Buddy, Stevenson does knockout versions of Richie Valens’ “Come On Let’s Go,” Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and an Elvis medley. Toronto’s Anthony kills Perkins’ “Boppin’ the Blues” and brings just the right amount of flamboyance to Little Richard.
The best shows about early rock ‘n’ roll have at least a semblance of plot and some conflict. Much of Red Rock Diner’s second act is taken up with the performers coming into the house–not once, not twice, but five times–to drag audience members onto the stage to play musical chairs.
Most importantly, the best plays and movies (think American Graffiti) respect the music and the feelings it evoked in those who grew up with it and helped invent it. Sure, a lot of the lyrics were vapid, and ’50s boys and girls wanted to have fun. But rock ‘n’ roll was also about sex and rebellion and the real emotions of kids becoming adults. Doo wop was soul music. Rock ‘n’ roll expressed vulnerability and frustrated desire. It wasn’t all just silly.
Near the end, a beautiful five-part version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” suggests how good a show like this might be if these performers had something more substantial to work with.