Where's the Fun in Dead Rockstar Sing-A-Long?

Wesley Whitson, Orlanders Jones  and Mahoganee Renee in Dead Rockstar Sing-A-Long Club
Wesley Whitson, Orlanders Jones and Mahoganee Renee in Dead Rockstar Sing-A-Long Club Photo by Tasha Gorel
The setup:

Last year sucked a big flaming pile of you know what if you were a music fan. In what seemed like an endless barrage of death notices, we lost some of our most beloved and critically acclaimed hit makers, thought provokers, shapeshifters and just plain wanna-make-us-get-up-and-dance groove hustlers. Musicians who defined the time they played in and whose output we weren’t nearly ready to shelve.

How on earth to pay homage to these talents?

Rec Room Arts has a way it believes is a far more cathartic exercise than sitting alone in your room listening to tracks and shaking your head in disbelief. “Dearly beloved,” the invitation reads. “We are gathered here today to celebrate the work of George Michael and Sharon Jones in the 2nd annual Dead Rockstar Sing-A-Long Club.

Second annual because last year this gang produced a similar event featuring the music of David Bowie and Prince. Sing-A-Long Club because this theatrical concert performance asks the audience to participate in interactive lyric belting as part of the celebration of these gone too soon but never forgotten artists.

The execution:

You know you’re in for a bumpy ride when, in the opening number, the performer portraying George Michael sings the boppy single "Faith" off-key, speak-singing half the words, jerking about like a mod revival kid and giving off an attitude that’s far more juvenilely moody Johnny Rotten than smolderingly pop-starrish post-Wham! superstar.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. First, our intro to the whole experience – the lyric book we’re handed upon arrival, “In case you want to sing along” we’re told. Wait – isn’t that the whole point of this? To sing along? Flipping through the song list, there’s initial excitement as we realize what tunes are to be featured in the one-hour show. Six from Michael’s repertoire ("Faith," "Somebody to Love," "Father Figure," "One More Try," "Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me" and "Freedom ’90") and five from Jones’s songbook ("Stranded in Your Love," "Let Them Knock," "100 Days/100 Nights" and "If You Call and Retreat").

Then we look at the lyrics themselves. The teeny, tiny, barely legible lyrics. Lyrics so miniature that if you’re old enough to have loved these two singers in their day, you’ll no doubt need your extra-strong reading glasses to make them out. How the hell are we supposed to see these words in a dark theater? Turns out we aren’t. They may call this a sing-along, but barely anything is done to include, encourage or involve the audience in singing along at any point during the show.

So then what are we left with? Set on a small, white, multilevel concert stage, the show can best be described as a series of performed songs, some in character, some not, with just the barest whiff of theatrical framing tying it all together. And by barest, I mean that a knickers-wearing, hobby-horse-riding George Michael clomping down the audience stairs onto the set during "Father Figure" was one of the only narrative attempts during the show. You can shake your head with me on that one because I’ve yet to figure it out.

Our musicians for the eve (Daleton Lee on drums, Nathan Richardson on bass, Alex Smith on keyboards and Gerardo Velasquez on guitar) keep things rolling along as one song, quickly and without pause for dialogue or audience address, merges into another. The performers saunter on and off the stage, taking their turns or occasionally hanging around to watch the others perform.

Others? Aren’t there just two singers featured here? Michael and Jones? Well, yes and no. While all the songs are the product of these two artists, the show features three singers. Wesley Whitson looks the part of Michael with his frosted,  floppy tips, cross earring, patterned shirt undone to there, leather jacket with the sleeves pushed up and tight jeans rolled at the hems, showing off black desert boots. But of the five George Michael songs in the show, Whitson tackles only three on his own, none of them particularly well. Part of the blame lies with musical director Abby Seible, who seems content to create snarky, spoken-sung arrangements to camouflage the weaknesses in Whitson’s voice. Part of the blame goes to director Matt Hune, who has Whitson play Michael as a petulant, shallow drunk.

Faring much better is Orlanders Tao Jones, dressed mainly in '80s-era suiting, as a floating singer in the show. One minute he’s a terrific accompaniment to Jones on a break-up-and-get-back-together song; next he’s killing it singing "Father Figure," and then for classy dead rockstar measure, he slips in a beautiful gospel-like rendition of "Black Hole Sun" honoring the recently deceased Chris Cornell. Jones is a performer with charisma and a strong set of pipes who knows how to entertain, and we’re consistently happy to be in his presence.

But if there is any belief that this show succeeds, it’s entirely thanks to Mahoganee Renee as the soul-belting, emotionally resonant, funk-do-wap, mini-dress-wearing, gloriously natural-haired Sharon Jones. Jones was not nearly as well-known as George Michael, and my guess is that most of the audience wasn’t overly familiar with her work. After hearing Renee do it this kind of justice, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an uptick in Sharon Jones downloads during the run. As we sat in our seats feeling the rhythms of her astonishing voice in our bellies, belting out Jones’s infectious songs, why weren’t we told to get up and dance? To clap? To get into the darn thing? This would have been the perfect opportunity to really make us feel a part of the show — to make the experience truly interactive, but instead we were left to our own polite devices — and so seated and silent we remained.

The verdict:

To those who dismiss this kind of show by asserting the notion that, well, this wasn’t really theater so what did you expect, I say sit down. Theater comes in all sorts of forms and I for one am thrilled that Houston has a company like Rec Room, which is pushing the boundaries and bringing a unique kind of performative arts into our ecosystem. It is very much wanted and needed.

This isn’t to say, however, that this failed effort is of no consequence. I’m miffed that something that should have been so much fun and is so needed at this time of constant negative news didn’t deliver what it promised. I wanted to mourn/celebrate the icons that defined my teenage/young adult years. I wanted to sing as if no one could hear me. I wanted to let the experience wash away the icky-ness for an hour. I wanted a capital S show.

I didn’t get it. So boo-hoo. As I said to the executive director just before the show started, I would always rather chance seeing a risky effort that flops than a perfectly executed but mundanely safe production. For in risk, when it works, come the greatest theatrical rewards. So for now, stealing the words of the late, great George Michael, I just gotta have faith, faith, faith that the next Rec Room show will be both a risk and a success.

Dead Rockstar Sing-A-Long Club continues through August 12 at Rec Room, 100 Jackson. For information, visit $15 - $25.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman