By Danny Romeo
MetroStage is getting the band back together. Rooms: A Rock Romance celebrates the ten-year anniversary of its premiere this year, in the very theatre where the production had its inaugural run. The production is a homecoming of sorts, with an encore performance from guitarist David Cole and several members of the original creative and administrative team in the audience, including the composer and librettists, Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon. After its premiere at MetroStage, Rooms went on to play Off-Broadway and in London, and has now returned to Alexandria.
The play follows Monica, a showbiz ingénue ready to do “W.I.T.: Whatever It Takes” to reach stardom, and Ian, a reclusive songwriter following in the footsteps of his rock idols. The unlikely pair team up for a small gig in their hometown of Glasgow, which eventually launches them on a whirlwind international tour. The plot is simple and familiar, but enjoyable. And ultimately it serves as a vehicle for the true star of the piece: the vocals.
Candice Shedd-Thompson and Matthew Schleigh, the only two actors in the production, are both powerhouse vocalists. The relatively short play is a marathon of songs, with little room to take a breath, and Shedd-Thompson and Schleigh breeze through the vocal calisthenics with brilliant tone and clarity. While the actors perform well in each of their solo pieces, the pair really shines when they sing together, especially when cutting loose for comedic scenes. Two sequences in particular, a saucy bat mitzvah performance and a montage of club performances reminiscent of the Sex Pistols, highlighted the exuberant personality of the main characters and launched the play forward with a boost of energy. Schleigh, an accomplished guitarist in his own right, plays along with several of the songs as well, adding an additional layer of complexity to his masterful performance.
Carl Gudenius’s set feels appropriately rock n’ roll, with projection screens on the wings and behind the set flashing images of legends like David Bowie and John Lennon (courtesy of designer Patrick W. Lord), and scaffolding shaping out a multi-level stage with the band perched upon it. The only other set pieces are a moveable door frame and several chairs. The sparse movable set pieces added to the transient nature of the story, giving the titular rooms ambiguity, a central theme of the plot.
The stage constructed upstage added a surreal quality to some scenes, giving a concert fantasy an epic quality (Alexander Keen’s lighting heightened the excitement of these scenes as well), but detracted from others, complicating the architecture of supposedly simple settings. Overall, the effect was exciting and emanated a sense of grandeur.
The world that director Thomas W. Jones II has created is a whirlwind of ambition, nerves, and excitement. He leads his characters through the highs and lows of the music industry with an appropriate sense of imbalance and drive, and their journey from start to finish is clearly defined. The song “Clean” in particular is delicately handled, and emotionally satisfying. But the play is never quite turned up to eleven. Letting the guitarist wail a bit harder or having the actors interact with the band on stage may have been the final push the production needed to really blow the roof off. Regardless, the production is exciting, and the music is well worth the price of admission.