‘Road’ trip for the early birds

Piece finished a 10-day run at Lyric Hammersmith

LONDON — Twenty-one elderly nonprofessionals (20 Americans and one 92-year-old Englishwoman) singing a largely British repertoire of pop and rock might sound jokey, patronizing or both, but think again. Five years after the Young @ Heart Chorus first visited London with “Road to Heaven,” the geriatric ensemble is back with a new piece, “Road to Nowhere,” and once again is eliciting British bravos.

The Observer called the piece “unmissable,” adding, “For forceful originality, you need to move out of the West End.”

The piece — 80 minutes, no intermission — finished a 10-day run Oct. 29 at the Lyric Hammersmith in west London, but looks likely to travel next summer to Switzerland and the Netherlands,with Belgium and France also under discussion. They played Australia in 2003.

Meanwhile, in Young @ Heart’s own country, the troupe is barely known outside the college town of Northampton, Mass., which is home base. “Americans don’t want to know about the elderly,” troupe co-director Bob Cilman told Variety.

Or maybe it’s that this show must be experienced first-hand. What looks initially like amateur night at a bingo hall becomes an essay in defiance, determination and intuitive musicianship, as an often frail yet always feisty ensemble tears into songs by, among others, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Radiohead and the Clash.

Their London following is due to Lucy Neal, co-founder of the London Intl. Festival of Theater. In 1999, she traveled to Munich to see “Road to Heaven” and was hooked: U.K. gigs in London and Wales followed. Now they are back with a follow-up show, produced in part by LIFT.

The logistics of performance aren’t simple. In the 23 years since Young @ Heart was founded, numerous company members inevitably have died. The demands of travel limit the length of a run and prevent any mooted commercial transfer.

Sometimes these novice entertainers resist their material. “They don’t necessarily like the music originally,” notes Cilman, himself 52. “But they understand they’re making a work of art. It’s not all about, ‘Let’s just do the things we want to do.’ ”

The results are pretty unforgettable, whether it’s 79-year-old Jeanne Hatch leading a “Walk on the Wild Side” to do Lou Reed proud or the company, seated in rows, reinventing the Ramones’ lyric “I wanna be sedated.”

As Cilman plans future travel dates, one destination gets nixed flat-out. “Florida would be so horrible. The elderly are OK as an audience if they’re with younger people as well, but if they’re all old people, they start to wonder why we aren’t behaving.”

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