The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream
Hard Rock Live, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
May 24, 2013
Better than: Most oldies concerts, many Broadway shows, a lot of everything else.
The Rascals: Once A Dream is a fusion of different forms -- part concert, part musical stage production, part documentary, part history lesson, but mostly, a whole lotta fun. The emphasis is as much on the visual elements -- the amazing light show, vibrant backgrounds, informative talking heads and, yes, the prerequisite vintage video clips, along with specially staged dramatic sequences played by younger actors -- as it is on the music, all of which is why the show qualified for Broadway sell-out status night after night.
Of course, the music matters most, with no less than 30 tracks performed by the original quartet itself -- younger actors are used only sparingly for reenacted sequences. No Jersey Boys this -- the songs inevitably come front and center. And what amazing music it is -- songs like "Groovin'," "Good Lovin'," ""People Got To Be Free," "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore" -- music that helped form the soundtrack of the '60s and remains, even today, permanently embedded in the memory of those for whom the 60s aren't simply an era, but an actual age as well.
I'm most happy to report that the band -- the original foursome, Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati, Dino Danelli, and Gene Cornish, along with a trio of back-up singers, a second keyboardist and a bass player -- perform those tunes with the same power and passion with which they were originally presented. Indeed, the delivery is wholly centered on them. Unlike the Beach Boys' reunion shows, there's no cast of thousands for augmentation, no audio enhancement, no nothing. Except each member performing at the height of their prowess, as if... As if... We were witnessing the same concert 45 years in the past.
It's not 1965 any more. It's 2013. And who would have thought that after four decades, the band would reconvene and still sound this strong. Cavaliere and Brigati still rank as two of the greatest white soul singers of all time and their vocal skills haven't diminished with time. Danelli is undeniably one of the best rock drummers of all time -- we're including Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and Mitch Mitchell in that comparison by the way -- and his twirling drumsticks and remarkably solid grooves are still a joy to behold. And Cornish, who sometimes seemed overshadowed by the prominence of Cavaliere's Hammond organ back in the day, upped his evaluation considerably, cutting swaths of melody, wailing away with relentless riffing, and providing supple leads that prove, even at age 69, he's as agile as most players half his age.
Indeed, the same thing could be said about each of them. The Rascals are one hot band. And damn if Eddie doesn't still have the energy and stage moves as he prances around shaking his shakers and ever-present tambourine. They may have gained weight, but each is as lithe as ever.
Happily then, the backstory finally gives them their due credit. Prerecorded interviews with each of the musicians show them talking directly to the camera, sometimes relating back and forth, occasionally segueing seamlessly into the musical numbers. The audience learns of the band's origins, reflects on their glory days (including candid comments about an apparent undiminished amount of groupies and their absolute allegiance to civil rights), and ultimately the mess caused by mismanagement which led to their break-up at the dawn of the '70s. Along the way, several heretofore obscure facts come to light. We learn that the Beatles actually opened for the Rascals in Sweden in October, 1963. And that an auto accident nearly cost Eddie his life, and put him in a coma that nearly cost him his career.
Of course, the songs still stand out, as glorious and exhilarating, as soulful and rocking as ever. The infectious grooves all sound as immediate now as they did then. Add in a number of lesser known songs and a handful of oldies, and with no less than 30 tunes and over two hours of stage time, Once Upon A Dream became sumptuous sampling of the Rascals' remarkable catalog.
Naturally, kudos also have to go to producer, director, stage designer, video director, and lighting designer Marc Brickman, whose incredible visual effects make this the spectacular presentation it is. The dazzling colors and wide array of backdrops helped capture the band during each initial era, literally converting the Hard Rock stage into a vintage psychedelic light show, a converted train depot or an ongoing series of backdrops that illuminate each song. Likewise, the special effects are sensational, from the realistic seagulls that glide through the background during "What Is the Reason," or the school of fish that float behind the band as they playing, appropriately, "Too Many Fish in the Sea." And when that screen falls away at the beginning, following the filmed introduction by Ed Sullivan, and we get the first glimpse of the band, lit in black and white. It's more than memorable. It's riveting, it's dazzling, it's everything a Broadway spectacle should be.
Which is why I'm tempted to depart from the usual concert review and wrap myself in the guise of that famous critic Clive Barnes. while summing up this review with something like, "Incredibly impressive... A must see!" But since I'm not Clive Barnes, and merely a lowly music critic, I'll simply say this: "It was awesome, It was ultra fab. And shame on you -- shame on you -- if you allow yourself to miss it.
Personal Bias: After the show ends its run, I'd love to see Cavaliere paired with Steve Winwood, a la the Billy Joel/Elton John dueling pianos set-up. Cavaliere and Winwood draw from the same roots, pay allegiance to the same R&B origins and have voices and songs that would be in perfect sync. Is there a promoter out there who wants to run with this idea? (Give me the credit please!)
The Crowd: As one might expect, the audience was older, but they were also among the feistiest I'd ever witnessed at the Hard Rock. Sadly though, after 15 sell-out shows on Broadway, Hard Rock was only two thirds filled with the number of empty seats making for a conspicuous sight. To make matters worse, many folks were already heading for the exits the minute the encore ended, leaving band to take their bows as people were departing. Awkward.
By the way: The opening announcement was hilarious, "If you have cell phones, take pictures, tweet them, share them, do whatever the fuck you want." Then again, these are actual Jersey Boys after all. The real deal too.
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