Club Review: Songs from “Rhinegold”
Back in the mid to late 20th century, theatre in New York (especially Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway) was quite a different animal Plays were not so much produced but burst forth from the creative energies of all involved. The writer(s), director, cast, and crew, often even the house staff, were invested in what was on stage; lack of polish and sometimes lack of professionalism were elements of the play’s creation. Audiences were counted on to fill in the blanks. There was a raw, unpolished energy bristling through the performing arts almost in defiance of the staid and traditional endeavors that continued to thrive on Broadway. The productions often defied even the trappings of professionalism. Some works, like Hair (to mention the most successful and influential) crossed over spectacularly into the mainstream, but most burned brightly and briefly in small theatres and spaces throughout the city. It was a glorious breeding ground for artists, on and off stage, and ideas were created and applauded for themselves, no matter how rough or unfinished the chosen medium might be.
Joe Papp and the Public Theater tried to nurture those ungroomed artists into a shape and style more presentable to the uptown crowds and the theatrical and critical powers that be. So it was that composer Jim Steinman and lyricist/ director Barry Keating were lured to Manhattan with dreams of their college creation, The Dream Engine, turning the theatre world on its ear. As with so many inventive, edgy creations of the time, it sat on the proverbial “in development” shelf. Steinman and Keating, who went on to bigger and more lucrative and successful theatre and recording projects in years to come (with the likes of Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler, Céline Dion, and shows like Starmites and Bat Out of Hell), filled their time with other pieces that fit the loose and thrown together musical plays that populated much of the downtown scene. Some, like Your Own Thing and Little Shop of Horrors harnessed the fiery energy of the time and tamed it, resulting in a new template that belonged more in the Broadway world.
But most creative artists wanted to push boundaries while satirizing and mocking the formal, more traditional productions on the Great White Way and flexing musical muscles that had not been felt in the theatre before. Many fell into the “so bad it’s good” category, sometimes, but not always, intentionally; others served to nurture undeniable talent and allowed it to develop into distinct and exciting voices that would reverberate through the performing arts in years to come. The work of Steinman and Keating fell firmly into the latter category. At its best, the combination of their ability, style, talent, and bravado was electrifying.
Their debut New York show turned out to be inspired by, of all things, Das Rheingold—translating the huge, unwieldy Richard Wagner operatic classic into a scintillating, off-the-wall, ragtag musical that made up for its non-existent budget with creativity, wit, and out-of-the-ordinary ideas and musical savvy. The seeds of Jim Steinman’s pop-rock brilliance were there in abundance and Barry Keating’s creative lyrics and direction highlighted the promise that was everywhere on the stage.
This is all by way of introduction to Songs from “Rhinegold,” a condensed concert performance of the original show presented recently at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Keating once again directed and proved a charming, funny narrator for the tale that served as the source for The Lord of the Rings as well. With a cast of nine and a band of four, there was little room at the Beechman for much in the way of staging beyond having the performers stand at microphones and sing. But, with a cast this talented, musicians this fine, and songs so fiery, that was enough.
Drew Wutke, brilliant on the piano, was also the conductor and provided the orchestrations and vocal arrangements, ably abetted by Dave D’Aranjo on bass, Nicole Patrick on drums, and Hajime Yoshida on guitar. The richness and electricity of their sound was remarkable and was in part due to the fine work by J.P. Perreaux on lights and sound. Standouts among the cast were Iris Beaumier, Mariah Lyttle, and Madge Dietrich as the Rhinemaidens (with Dietrich especially memorable in a second role as Erda, the Earth Goddess), Bradley Dean as Odin, King of the Gods, and Greg Sullivan as both Froh, the God of Youth, and Mika, a Nibelung, as a dwarf.
Which brings us to the incendiary, incandescent, altogether incredible André De Shields who recreated his role as Alberich, the eventual Lord of the Ring, and took on a second role as Loki, the Demi-God of Fire. It seems inevitable, I suppose that after a lifetime of iconic performances in roles ranging from The Wiz, to Ain’t Misbehavin’, to Hadestown, that he would at this point in his storied career, be typecast as a deity. You will hear no argument from me—his talent, dedication, passion, power, and his art have long ago achieved divinity status in my book. His was not the Loki of the Thor movies by any stretch. Carrying off a costume (and characterization) that was split down the middle gown and tuxedo, he mesmerized the room in a dynamic, roof-rattling rock anthem called “I Do the Dirty,” managing to be seductive and seismic in equal measure. This number alone would have easily been worth the price of admission. Christina Cocchiara and Brendan McCann deserve their own round of applause for designing the costume. He returned later in the show to recreate his original role as the Lord of the Ring from the first production. Keating later informed us that he even did the song in its original key. The actor proved, yet again, that there is no one like André De Shields.
The show was uneven, the score was uneven, but when it worked, it was quite remarkable. There was foreshadowing of many of the Steinman classics to come in a score that was much more hit than miss. Rhinegold was ragged then; Rhinegold is ragged now. To that I close with a resounding, “So what!” It captured an arcane bit of musical and theatrical history in a most delightful way.
Presented at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, 407 W. 42nd St., on July 14, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”