If you’re a fan of the music from the 1950s you’re going to love the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Red Rock Diner. If you’re looking for insight into Vancouver during that period or more than a small glimpse into the career of Red Robinson, one of our city’s most famous disc jockeys, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.
[pullquote]Despite its tenuous story and repetitive nature, there is some incredible talent on stage. Zachary Stevenson is is the epitome of effortless cool …[/pullquote]It probably helps in setting expectations going in to Red Rock Diner as it is not a ‘musical’, despite what the marketing materials might say. Even to call it a ‘juke box musical’ is misleading as even the worst of the juke boxes (the dreadful Mamma Mia or Movin’ Out come to mind) make an attempt at some sort of narrative. Let’s call it ‘musical revue light’, a string of 1950s hits connected by some dialogue.
It is a shame though as RRD felt like such a wasted opportunity, making little more than a superficial attempt to explore the time period and the man who inspired the show. In fact, there is little in show creator Dean Regan’s book that isn’t covered in the program you’ll receive as you walk in the door.
As the creator of the equally vapid A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, one supposes it should come as no surprise that it would be all about the music for Regan. But how cool would it have been to learn more about our post-war neon city with its zoot suit criminal youth gangs? Or something more about the man at the center of the action here, beyond his introduction of Elvis and an on-air prank that gets out-of-control? For Regan’s Patsy Cline story it is perhaps easier to understand why song shadows story, but with Robinson still alive and living in Vancouver it is perplexing, and not a little maddening, how little we actually learn about the man, let alone the time.
Ironically, in one of the few scenes of extended dialogue, Robinson receives some career advice from the assistant station manager, telling him that the key to a good on-air music set is in playing songs in a particular order: male, female, group, instrumental, repeat. And while Robinson appears to have solidified his career by not following that advice, Regan seems to have embraced a similar aesthetic with the repetitive structure of Red Rock Diner that moves from on-air patter to song and back again.
Despite its tenuous story and repetitive nature, there is some incredible talent on stage. Zachary Stevenson, who wowed us in The Buddy Holly Story a couple of years ago, is the epitome of effortless cool with a gorgeous voice and a star-quality stage presence. One can’t help but note a certain irony that we discover Robinson had met the real Buddy Holly, but like much of the narrative in this show that is all we find out.
Colin Sheen as the young soda jerk Johnny B is not only a terrific singer, he is also a terrific dancer. It is hard not to keep your eyes off him during the group numbers as he dances circles around the rest of this cast. As the affable radio disc jockey, Neil Minor has some nice singing chops and even manages to capture a bit of the familiar Red Robinson patter. Tafari Anthony is the definition of smooth and his Little Richard medley rightfully brought down the house. Robyn Wallis and Anna Kuman round out the cast with equally fine voices, but they are eclipsed by the music Regan has given the men.
Backing up the quintet on stage is a quintet of musicians – Mathew J Baker, Todd Biffard, Jeff Gladstone, Steven Greenfield and Brett Ziegler – who are also given an opportunity to take centre stage. Thankfully, where the back-up band in Regan’s Patsy Cline revue were bereft of any emotion, here director and choreographer Valerie Easton ensures there are no wallflowers.
Ted Roberts set gives Robinson a deejay booth perched atop a set of stairs stage left, much like, if one were to delve into any deeper meaning, the radio station’s antenna that broadcasts the music. The rest of the design ranged from serviceable (the moveable diner counter) to the underwhelming (the high school gym).
No doubt there is a market for Red Rock Diner given the reaction on opening night, but as the closer for the Arts Club’s 50th anniversary season it seems like such a missed opportunity. I wanted to be inspired by the possibilities of theatre from our city’s largest theatre company and to dream of the possibilities that the next fifty years might hold, not just be served a concert of fifties music. Instead, those dreams quickly became a nightmare as I shuddered at the thought of some future time when a musical revue would feature the songs of Katy, Miley, Nicki and Rihanna.
Red Rock Diner created by Dean Regan based on the Early Days of Legendary Deejay Red Robinson. Directed and choregraphed by Valerie Easton. Musical direction by Steven Greenfield. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the Arts Club Granville Island Stage through August 2, 2014. Visit https://artsclub.com for tickets and information.