Carolyn Agan’s rock-and-roll musical creates an in-depth examination of the lives of six rock stars who all died at age 27 by combining pieces of their stories with the music they involved or inspired.
I came to Carolyn Agan’s The 27 Club, I’ll admit, expecting impersonators. I examined the headshots in the program, drawing resemblances, prediction who would play whom, preparing myself for an extremely literal romp through the lives of the six rock stars proclaimed on the program’s cover. Performances wouldn’t be exactly accurate, I figured, but they would at least be fun. What I found was entirely different and new, and surprised me in the best possible way.
The 27 Club does feature the lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain. It’s composed of their music. But instead of appearing as one personality, the actors all cycle through not only a diverse cast of supporting characters but also the different stars themselves. Agan says in the directors note that this cycling “reminds us that there is a piece of [the 27 club] in all of us,” and the variety of faces, male and female, representing Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix keeps the show dynamic and engaging as we see each actor’s take on the famous six.
The switching can be confusing at first, and I found myself somewhat alienated by the scenes from the stars’ early lives while I was still struggling to tell them apart. Fortunately, just-frequent-enough name repetition and the careful use of shared costume pieces – a red hair flower for Amy, the iconic flannel shirt for Kurt – made it not too difficult to distinguish each character as he or she appeared on the different actors. Fortunately, the actors didn’t share certain obvious movements or behavioral tics (apart from accents) when playing a certain role, instead giving their own take on the character. Coleman’s Amy Winehouse was endearing and ambitious, while Ghandchilar’s was acerbic and exhausted. I also saw actors grow with the characters, as Piper returns during different stages of Kurt Cobain’s life to capture his change on a consistent scale.
The brevity of the scenes between songs can give the whole piece the feel of an enhanced concert, but what a concert it is. Amy Winehouse’s “What is it About Men” takes on new emotional power when sung to her father, and The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations,” one of Brian Jones’s last recordings before leaving the band, becomes heartbreaking at his funeral. It’s easy to get lost in the fast-moving plot and quickly-switching characters, especially if you like me are not intimately familiar with each rock star’s life, but the emotion still reaches in the power of each vocal and acting performance.
Staging, too, adds a great element to the piece. I especially loved a moment when actors sat down in vacant chairs in the house and bellowed their reactions to a performance in the show, breaking the fourth wall to make the audience feel what it was like to be a certain star’s adoring (or not-so-friendly) public. Coming from behind audience member’s chairs or singing right in front of the front row brought the action and emotion closer to us and made me much more engaged. The show also alternates stage-filling flurries of activity with striking solo monologues to keep things interesting.
The songs, as is necessary, are incredible. From Taylor standing on a box belting “Smells Like Teen Spirit” until the whole house was screaming to Coleman lurching onstage as Hendrix and then absolutely killing “Fire,” the whole piece had the feel of a rock concert with the vocal quality to match. Solo numbers were transformed into heavily harmonized multi-part pieces with every cast member joining in to add depth and drama. The standout performance of the night was definitely Jones as Janis, owning “Piece of my Heart” with enough feeling and vocal power to bring down the house. Rather than copying Joplin’s signature screeching tone, Jones gave deep richness to the song but brought in the spontaneity and zany joie de vivre that characterized the star’s performances.
The show does have its problems, namely the choreography, which seemed strange and kind of disjointed from the rest of the show. When the acting and vocals are carrying the performance, trust falls and floor rolls can seem a bit out of place. The projector showing a slideshow of pictures could have been better used to make the scenes clearer with names, but as it was just took away from the performances. A few mediocre English accents and other rough patches were also distracting, but for the most part the actors slipped in and out of characters with admirable speed and seamlessness.
The reimagining of songs and stars, rotating ensemble acting, phenomenal band, poignant quotes, and knockout vocal performances made this a brilliant, if disjointed, look into the lives of The 27 Club, presenting them as varied and universal examples of humanity as a whole. Agan picked a daring device and carried it through to a dramatic conclusion, and I wouldn’t have seen it any other way.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
The 27 Club plays through July 26th at the Warehouse – 645 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC. For performance information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe Page.