MELD: Rockville 2069 features the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, a rock band, a huge cast of singers and actors.

NEW rock-musical Rockville 2069 premieres at the Artscape Opera House today. Creator of the project, Johnny Ray, released a CD of the work two years ago with a graphic novel. Now the work has been adapted for this enormous production. MARIE-CLAIRE DE VILLIERS talks to Johnny Ray and music director Gavin Wright about ‘fresh’ theatre, the apocalypse, and a cast throwing out surprise after surprise.

Featuring the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, a rock band, a huge cast of singers and actors and large-scale theatre design, Rockville promises to entertain with a story about the power of music over one of the biggest challenges we face now – war.

Ray wrote the music, script and lyrics. Bruno Paiola co-wrote the script and lyrics, and directing the premier is Gavin Wright, who also assisted with adapting the script to the stage. Steven Wright arranged for the CPO and conducts them (after orchestrations by Darryl Andrews), and Kyle Petersen also played a role in the original music arrangements.

Scrolling through the website, one may recognise many highly acclaimed South Africans among the cast, orchestra members and instrumentalists.

These include Joseph Clarke, Monique Hellenberg, Patrick Goodwin, Andrew Ford, Kevin Gibson and Tony Cox.

Wright’s first impressions of the music and script was that it was incredibly relevant today.

“The first time I heard the CD and read the script, I knew this piece had incredible potential for becoming a musical. It had all the elements. And what made it so refreshing was that it had a futuristic story. We are faced with these types of disasters now. There are many things which, if they keep going the same way, may very well lead to the situation depicted in Rockville 2069.

Wright has worked in theatre for 25 years. “I qualified in 1987 and straight after that did acting, dancing, and got involved in directing by chance. I decided I wanted to produce a story I’d written. That was the beginning. Since then I’ve directed Fiddler on the Roof, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Oklahoma. I also decided to dedicate most of my time to a company – my company, The Fresh Theatre Company – which performs new works and helps young artists get training, opportunities and exposure.

“I wanted to do fresh new productions, and here we are also welcoming fresh faces, fresh talents, and actors coming from many different backgrounds who could sing. We’ve had an incredibly short rehearsal run – three weeks from day one to opening night – and all the artists have been amazing in bringing everything together. Expectations from the audience will be varied – but I can guarantee that they will be absolutely blown away by this production,” said Wright.

“It’s much easier to recreate a standard show – where there have been previous examples – here we are working from scratch, and going with our gut. This show is a roller-coaster and full of surprises. As South Africans, it’s important for us to say ‘yes, we can do huge, successful productions’.”

Dance in the show is more of an integrated aspect.

Wright adds, “We’ve had wonderful choreography from Corinne de Beer. It makes sense to the story – its plot driven rather than big dances for their own sakes.”

Ray expands on the audition process: “We had to develop a quite difficult brief. There are leads who drive the story, and we needed great actors to take it to the next level. There are many layers to the production and we needed artists to make them pop. It was also tricky because the story uses music as a basis for a message, but we didn’t want to sound preachy, so we had to have performers who really entertain. We decided to put together a cast of one third experienced musical theatre performers (who act and dance), then a third truly Shakespearean actors, who could also sing a bit, and then a last third excellent dancers who could also sing. I wanted everybody to sing. It was a challenge! Two of the actors – Nicholas Pauling and Jeroen Kranenburg – have Shakespearean experience, and Jeroon plays Cliff, an oddball ringtamer character. He just pops out of nowhere.”

Were there any surprises in the way the performers dealt with the process, from casting to finish and how did Ray go about shaping the characters for the stage?

“Every person on stage has a real character, with a history and development in the story. This is a character-driven production. The casting was a really interesting process. Many people who auditioned said they were drawn to the genre, and the fact that it was something fresh where old favourites wouldn’t necessarily be chosen. Steven Wright – music director – joined our rehearsals last week and was very impressed at the level of musicality, and the variety of the voices. There is a huge range of vocal styles – they are not all typical “musical theatre” and rock voices. This just goes to show, South Africa has it – we just need more material and more opportunities.”

Drawing on Ray’s background of singing and playing in bands Rockville 2069 promises to be a grand rock musical. “Composing was always something magical for me and I did a lot of songwriting and performing when I was younger, but later I worked in the commercial business industry for many years. Then I decided, it’s now or never – I have this musical I want to share with the world. From there, the CD and graphic novel developed, and now, Rockville 2069.

l Rockville 2069 is at Artscape Opera Theatre from today until September 7. Tickets R100 to R290. To book, call 0861 9125 8000. The Rockville 2069 graphic novel and CD are available at EMI or at www.rockville2069.com and from The Greek Merchant at the shows.