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Jukebox musical time travelers

"Neil Berg's Rock-N-Roll Decades" rock radio revue coming to Washington Center

Neil Berg / press photo

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One of the most popular theater trends to emerge over the last two decades is the jukebox musical, in which some theme or performer is used as a justification for stringing together a bunch of hit songs you already know. The term dates to 1962 at the latest, and An American in Paris fit the description 11 years before that. After the mammoth success of 1999's Mamma Mia!, the format came to dominate the West End and Broadway. Audiences can't get enough of it, making shows like Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story, Forever Plaid, Jersey Boys, and Rock of Ages box-office catnip. So why, it's fair to ask, have so many critics - I, for one - been less than enraptured?

For one thing, it's a hell of a lot easier to list songs that fit a certain theme than write memorable new ones, and that attracts unqualified aspirants to the genre. Also, because the audience is really just waiting to bop along to the next familiar tune, they're more forgiving of clichéd dialogue or half-witted jokes. Often, mindless spectacle is emphasized over relevance or even good sense. I love the band Queen, for example, but I challenge you to make it through a production of We Will Rock You without cringing.

Having said that, I do love hearing talented singers perform popular music on local stages. It's also a damn sight cheaper than Springsteen tickets. So how do we fans of live performance balance our fondness for radio rhythms with an understandable aversion to crap? This requires homework. You could start by scanning rosters of award winners. Ain't Misbehavin': the Fats Waller Musical (which, it just so happens, plays Tacoma's Broadway Center for the Performing Arts on March 7) won the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for best musical. You could also trust a producer or playwright's résumé. If, for example, you dug All the Way and The Great Society as much as I did, you might be interested to learn those scripts' author, Robert Schenkkan, collaborated with off-Broadway impresario Neil Berg on a rock musical about Jesus's apostles, called The 12. That show features all-new songs, but Berg has racked up quite a jukebox-musical CV of his own.

And that brings us, at long last, to Neil Berg's Rock-n-Roll Decades, playing Jan. 10 in Olympia. It's a jukebox musical that travels the annals of rock history. Instead of using lame comic filler to slog from song to song, however, its performers introduce each number with history about the icon who made it famous. We're talking single-named superstars like Elvis, Dylan, Aretha, Janis, Elton, Billy and Bruce. And oh, what singers and musicians Berg assembled to wail these numbers! All six vocalists have toured with national productions, and Sophia Ramos fills Janis's shoes by touring as lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company. All in all, Decades is about as safe a bet as you can find. Chances are, your favorite artists are represented-never duplicated, of course, but boy, do some jukebox musicals come close.

NEIL BERG'S ROCK-N-ROLL DECADES, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 10, Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia, $17-$47, 360.753.8585

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