Evan Ferrante, Peter Kim
Who would have guessed after all these years that the best thing about Yoko Ono’s music was her voice? Call it performance art or caterwauling, her distinctive warbling at least lent a quirky personality to her avant-garde song styling; without it, her music is revealed as banal lyrics set to forgettable (at best) melodies. In other words: “New York Rock.”
No easy way to say it: Ono’s first foray into legitimate theater is an unmitigated disaster. The show consists of 29 songs that range from grating to mediocre (with perhaps two or three passable exceptions) strung together to simulate a plot, performed by an earnest but inexperienced and ultimately unsuccessful cast, with choreography and direction that can charitably be described as hackneyed.
Certainly Ono, who composed these songs in the 1970s and ’80s and wrote the few bits of spoken dialogue that suggest a storyline, must share the blame with director Phillip Oesterman. But reserve a brickbat for Pete Townshend: If “New York Rock” is the new wave of musical foreshadowed by “Tommy,” God help Gotham if Jethro Tull gets ideas.
“New York Rock” so clearly strives to emulate the Who tuner, and so clearly fails, that one is left with a newfound admiration for “Tommy’s” achievements.
Threadbare tech credits don’t help, nor do unsubtle touches like a graffito peace sign splattered with blood or cast members depositing handguns in a garbage can at evening’s end.
Story, which Ono reportedly insists is not autobiographical, has little Bill (Sean Dooley) struggling to come to terms with the street murder of his mother (Jan Horvath). And that’s only the first 10 minutes.
After that, Bill grows up (Pat McRoberts), falls in love with Jill (Lynnette Perry), resists emotional commitment because of his childhood trauma, accepts love thanks to the ghostly coaching of Mom and his own little self, and is murdered. And that’s only 10 minutes into act two.
Songs share one of two basic styles: unmelodic rock or treacly ballad. Oesterman’s direction is equally two-note: actors are either spotlighted centerstage balladeering or lining up, en masse, at stage’s edge, stern-faced and barking strident lyrics at the audience.
The uneven cast can do little to save face. McRoberts makes for a dark-haired , hunky hero, rendering laughable his scenes with the freckle-faced redheaded lad supposed to be his younger self.
Casting takes an even more absurd bent with the three cherubic preteen boys playing the chorus of leather-jacketed street thugs, as if Barney the Dinosaur’s entourage had lost its way somewhere in the West Village.
Perhaps this was a losing proposition to begin with. Maybe Ono’s music truly is the performance art her fans have always claimed, in which case separating the material from the performance is foolhardy. “New York Rock” would support that argument, just as it would support many less kind assertions.