Scott Richard Foster and Dieter Bierbrauer.
BOTTOM LINE: A fun, feel-good rock cabaret that brings you straight back to the late 80s. Go for the nostalgia, and the awesome, totally cheesy music, not for the profound insights.
The mood is mid-eighties metal when you walk into the club where Power Balladz is being staged; cocktail waitresses and patrons alike are dressed for the occasion in tight tanks, minis, and motorcycle boots. Hard-rock hits are playing over the speakers, and people are already singing and bopping along in anticipation. Little touches in the environment set the tongue-in-cheek tone for the evening: there are Slim Jims on every table, and a drink discount is offered for anyone sporting a mullet.
When the lights go down, the band steps onstage, and the opening strains of a Guns 'N Roses classic start to play, you know that this won't be straight parody either; the power ballads promised to you will be played to their utmost. This is the sweet spot that the show hits so well, it takes its cheesiness very seriously, and provides the audience the rocking catharsis they seek, along with some side chuckles at the silliness of it all. The formula of the show is a winner: you get to re-experience your first intense tastes of teenage freedom - speeding down the highway in your first car with the music blasting, hot make-out sessions with the music blasting, sneaking out of the house to your first kegger with the music blasting, and simultaneously laugh at your acid-wash mom jeans and incredibly bad hair.
The playlist of the show is the best of what the genre has to offer. There are classics by Queen, Heart, Styx, Guns 'N Roses, Bon Jovi, and the list goes on. My heart soared when the band struck up "Sister Christian," one of my personal favorites, but almost broke when the song was interrupted early for a plot moment. Isn't there a law against that? Most songs, however, are satisfyingly played from beginning to end. The audience sings along, lifts their hands, lighters, and iPhones into the air, and all-around participates with real verve. It is nearly impossible to resist the pull of the music, and I appreciate that the audience is encouraged to get involved.
Three singer/actors with big voices, backed by a live band, make up the cast of the show. Dieter Bierbrauer, who looks and sings like a blond Eddie Vedder, and Scott Richard Foster, whose high tenor voice perfectly suits the power ballad genre, play high school best friends who put on the local cabaret we are supposedly attending. Who should show up in the audience tonight? An old-flame of Dieter's, Mary, played by Mary Mossberg, who used to rock the best singing voice in high school, but is now a divorced, mousy librarian type (sex-kitten transformation alert). This is about as far as the plot of the show goes. Once Mary steps up on stage, the characters' past isn't mentioned again until the final number. Though not strictly necessary, more plot elements would strengthen the show. The songs are a trip down memory lane for the audience, and the memories and stories of this time in the character's lives would enhance the journey.
Another great, under-exploited plot conceit is Dieter's Ph.D. in the Power Ballad. At several points throughout the show, Dieter gives a scholarly explanation of one aspect or another of the music. My favorite was a hilarious video presentation that argues for a connection between the fall of Communism and the release of Poison's "Winds of Change." I would have been happy with several more of these presentations.
The final aspect of the book is audience-interactive trivia. Unfortunately, these moments really slow the momentum of the show down, making it feel a bit amateur-ish. In the director's note, Mike Todaro describes how the show was created in just 18 hours. While the book is truly not that important here, since the music creates the emotions and provides the catharsis, I think spending a few more hours working on the non-musical aspects of this show might be of service. This is a solid show with a super-fun concept and great execution in terms of talent and production values. Why not make it the best it can be and bring the book up to par with the other elements?
Book aside, for those of us of a certain age and ilk, Power Balladz will be a great trip back to our teenage years. Even for those who don't fit the demographic perfectly, the music is popular enough, and the cast talented enough, that you will certainly have a good time. Especially after the Jäger and the strobe lights work their magic on you.
(Power Balladz plays at the Midtown Theater, 163 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, through October 23, 2010. Performances are Mondays and Thursdays at 9pm, Fridays at 7pm and 10pm, and Saturdays at 6pm and 10pm. (Performance times change slightly after Labor Day - check the website for more info). Tickets are $69.99 general admission, or $89.99 for VIP, and are available online at www.powerballadz.com or by calling Theatermania at 212.352.0255. $25 student rush tickets (cash only) are available at the box office, 1 hour before showtime.)