IIt has been Boston Rock Opera’s mission, since its 1993 inception, to dust off, kick up, give respect to, and sometimes tweak the rock operas and story-songs of the past, such as ”Jesus Christ Superstar,” the Who’s ”A Quick One While’s He’s Away,” the Beatles’ ”Sgt. Pepper.” The company held a one-off performance of the Kinks’ ”Preservation Act 2” at the Middle East its first year. And it’s back with the full-blown ”Preservation” – a slightly edited composite of Acts 1 and 2 – at Tower Auditorium at Mass. College of Art. (Composer Ray Davies consulted with director Eleanor Ramsay and contributed several ”author’s notes.”)
The stage is mostly spare – three towers, four-tiered steps – and pretty much has to be to accompany the ever-swirling singers and dancers coursing through. It is directed by Jane Bulger and Ramsay, who with Mick Maldonado is Boston Rock Opera’s co-founder.
It’s a busy two hours of rockin’ theater. Glamour, greed, political scheming, science gone too far, socialism gone awry, and absolute power doing what it tends to do. At the start, the suave, yet brutal and duplicitous Mr. Flash (Maldonado) presides over the ”village.” Ah, but discontent is brewing. An everyman called the Tramp, a semidrunken sage played regally by Peter Moore, is our tour guide. Flash is challenged by the Mephisto-like smoothie, Mr. Black (Brian Gottesman), who gives lip service to creating a class-free society, but links up with the Vicar (Marty Barrett) and the Do-Gooders to stamp out smut, invoke censorship, and clamp down on personal freedom. With the aid of the Mad Scientist (spindly-legged Jim McKay), he turns Flash and the rest of the village into zombies. One by one, the townfolk pass through an arch and are jolted with a ray of brain-draining radiation. Flash’s girlfriend, the floosie-with-a-heart-of-gold Belle (Kay Hanley), goes kicking and screaming – and emerges zombified. Only the Tramp escapes. Poor Mr. Flash. After breaking down, proclaiming ”I’m everything that I once despised,” and recovering a semblance of humanity, Flash gets zapped. Cruel world. The shell-of-Flash and Mr. Black lead the new coalition government.
Thematically, ”Preservation” is one of Davies’s best works – both broad and intimate, politically savvy and righteously pessimistic. Everything sounds glorious – major chords rip from the eight-piece band, walloping crescendos abound, singers get to tear into their roles – but that’s just Davies’s way of writing uplifting songs about dire situations. Rottenness consumes this village and taints its hapless people. Davies warns of the pressure to conform; he touts the plight of the often-trampled common man; he believes politicians have only power and their pocketbooks in mind. Davies hammers away at the right-wingers; he zings the lying lefties.
”Preservation” is packed with strong songs. ”He’s Evil,” sung at each other by the warring Black and Flash camps, was brilliant. The Tramp’s cynical history lesson, ”Nobody Gives,” was dynamic – Moore ended the song in a ball on the floor, stomped by Flash’s men. Flash and Belle’s swan song, ”Nothing Lasts Forever,” brought a tear. The finale, the faux-triumphant ”Salvation Road,” is a joy to behold. Everyone except Mr. Black believes they’re marching off into a merry future.
There is a lot of action in this production, as with any BRO event. On stage, it’s a hurly-burly populated not just by the politicos but by schoolgirls, ”do-gooders,” henchmen, workers, businessmen. It seems like a cast of thousands (23, in fact) and it takes some work to keep everyone straight. Occasionally the miking was erratic. The first act is a rather long table-setter – most of the drama, conflict, and best songs come in the second act. But, taken either bit by bit or as a whole, ”Preservation” is a delight. It’s a mess out there in the village, but it sure feels good in the audience.
This story ran on page B06 of the Boston Globe on 10/05/98. © Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.