Rock and Roll

By John Gray
Performed by Michael Blake, Lisa Horner, J. D. Nicholsen, M.J.Ross, Sean Sullivan, Aaron Walpole
Directed by Valerie Moore
The Grand Theatre, London
April 4-29. 2006
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Walpole rocks!

Ahh – the power of TV! Many great actors have crossed the stage at London’s Grand Theatre: the likes of Jessica Tandy who won Tonys and an Oscar, and many others of her calibre. But few have attracted the public’s interest as much as Aaron Walpole in the Grand’s current offering, the Canadian musical Rock & Roll.

You haven’t heard of Aaron Walpole? Well, then you’re not a TV watcher, or you’d know that Walpole was 2nd runner up in Canadian Idol last summer. Aaron’s, well, heavy set, and perhaps not what one might expect for a pop idol’s appearance. Nonetheless, many felt he had by far the greatest singing talent and should have won the competition. If Friday night was any indication, he is hugely popular with 10-year-old girls and 55-year-old women. You don’t often see crowds, autograph books in hand, gather round actors at the Grand. But Aaron has groupies!

And he doesn’t disappoint. It’s as if the role of Parker was written for him. A graduate of Sheridan College’s musical theatre program, Walpole has proven he’s more than a pop idol: he can certainly sing and act, and yes, he’s light on his feet and treated the audience to some dance moves, too. Walpole shows that he can rock with the best, but it’s his heart-felt ballad about his parents that puts a lump in your throat. His comic acting is evident in the scene where he sneaks in the house drunk at 6:00 a.m. after being out all night, knowing he has to get up in a few hours for Sunday School.

Rock and Roll is good fun and dredges up a lot of memories. Most are feel good thoughts, but some of those unpleasant memories are brought back, too. Like being young and dealing with difficult parents. Or when the cool kid got killed in a car crash right after graduation.

If you’re about 60 years old, as Manny says, you’re now probably one of those people who golfs. You will identify with and enjoy this show. Rock and Roll takes place in Mushaboom, Nova Scotia, but it could be any Small Town, Canada. The story commences in the 1980’s when four men get together to reunite The Monarchs, a rock and roll band they had formed while attending high school in the sixties. Then we flashback to the band in its heyday, and finally conclude with the reunion concert.

The story is cleverly written by Nova Scotian John Gray, who’s an experienced stage writer/composer/performer, but probably better known, again thanks to TV, for his appearances on CBC. Gray fools us with the music, stealing a riff from a popular Elvis or Beatles song, but then leading us in another direction with equally as good original tunes and lyrics.

Michael Blake plays Screamin’ John, the older teen who acts as the band’s mentor and later comes back as a ghost, after his tragic death. Blake handles the rhyming dialogue well. It could be a little hokey without Blake’s smooth and entertaining delivery.

M.J. Ross is excellent as Manny, the geeky drummer. His heartfelt prayers as he confesses his partying and underage drinking to his Jewish-turned Presbyterian God are hilarious. But you also feel his fear of his domineering father. Sean Sullivan as Chink is also very good – he fears having to get a real job when the band inevitably breaks up. J. D. Nicholsen will be remembered in the Grand’s production of The Foursome. Here he handles the part of Brent very well. The audience loves it when he drives up in his Dad’s fifties vintage Desoto convertible. He and girlfriend Shirly, played wonderfully by Lisa Horner, give the audience those warm, fuzzy memories of first love.

Credit for this production goes to director Valerie Moore, who previously directed this show when it was a hit on the Grand’s stage 18 years ago. By moving the story along quickly, she keeps the predictable plot interesting. Bob Foster’s musical direction has replicated the sounds of the early sixties.

And having TV star Aaron Walpole live on stage – well, that just adds to the fun!

Rock & Roll continues at the Grand Theatre in London until April 29. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593.

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