Johnny Ray
Johnny Ray

It’s not every day that a new musical seems to pop up out of nowhere. That’s probably also why we regard them with scepticism rather than embracing them in celebratory mode.

It’s because it is such a huge undertaking and it’s going to be an uphill task.

Producer/creator, Capetonian Johnny Ray, seems up for the challenge, though. He spent most of his youth in and around theatres and music and realised quite early on that composing and creating came quite easily to him.

Nevertheless, when it came to career choices, he was warned that music would not be a money-making concern. He turned to business, property finances in fact, but also kept his creative interests bubbling by playing in bands and eventually finding a creative outlet through his work on a promotional level.

Constantly being nudged by his creative soul, he knew he was going to go the music route finally – in a big way. His business expertise would help him with the staging, while his creativity would do the rest.

This, in short, is how he got from soundtrack to graphic novel to theatre stage with Rockville 2069, South Africa’s brand-new and original rock musical which will premiere at the Pretoria SA State Theatre for five performances, from June 27 to 30.

Then the production moves to Durban next month and Bloemfontein in October.

“The dream was,” says Ray, “to write a smash hit for Broadway.”

He knows this sounds arrogant, but what he believes is that he aimed in terms of passion and standard for the best. He also had a business plan, so once the musical was written with creative partner Bruno Paiola, he found the best to help with orchestration, putting a soundtrack together and then creating the graphic novel.

That was the first part of the equation. Now they’re present- ing the live show, but only in its incubation stage and then hopefully, it will be picked up internationally.

Seeing many fly-by-nights come and go, I’m still not convinced by his confidence, but have to admire the chutzpah. And rehearsing just down the passage from where we’re talking is a bunch of impressive musical names. He’s doing something right.

And “rock musical” also sounds like a strange choice. For Ray, Rockville 2069 is a reflection on 100 years of especially US culture with references to arguably the most famous music festival, Woodstock. It’s the time of the flower children, peaceful revolution and music that is still listened to in various forms, he argues.

This is how they tell it according to the pre-publicity: the futuristic Rockville 2069 is, at heart, a love story set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic world and steeped in the philosophies that characterise the rebellion of the Sixties, the Seventies and those that are currently shaping our world.

The story tells us of an Earth that has been destroyed by man’s neglect and climate change, however, one small archipelago of islands, known as Rockville, survives and is now home to a group of peace-loving rockers, sound technicians and musicians, celebrating 100 years of the Woodstock festival of 1969.

Music is what will keep them alive. Not a bad premise for a musical.

What is also impressive is the production team they put together: music direction by Bryan Schimmel, one of the best in the land, (Jersey Boys, Dreamgirls, Rent, We Will Rock You), choreo- graphy by Celeste Botha (Boys in the Photograph), superstar Denis Hutchinson is the lighting designer, with Richard Smith as sound designer completing the creative team.

Director Gavin Wright is quite new at something this huge, even though he has run his own Fresh Theatre Company successfully for many years.

“I needed someone who would be there all the way from the ground up and who can hustle,” says Ray and that’s how it has panned out.

What they have been doing these past few years is laying the foundation for future success with a graphic novel, a CD and finally from this current staging, a book that shows the musical staged.

Technically, Ray believes they’re in the forefront with generous support from suppliers and friends of the theatre. “South Africans are very generous,” he says.

For this production they’ve also brought some hard-hitting talent on board including Joseph Clark (Papa), Judy Ditchfield (Mama), Altus Theart (Ice), Norman Anstey (Starr), Khaya Maseko (Ozzimba), Bruce Little (Stache), LJ Urbani (Tyler). Shaun V plays the rebellious hero JohnnyReb and introducing Caitlin Clerk as his love interest, Danielle.

With 29 original tracks performed on stage combining rock ’n’ roll sounds with techno music and a graphic novel adaptation, the performers will also be backed by live musicians.

This first run will be the musical adaptation aimed at introducing Rockville 2069 to the public, which will be followed by a stage show version next year.

“It’s a teaser,” says Ray.

He believes what they have pulled off is a big-budget thing with limited funds. It will be his legacy, something that will outlive him and make him proud. That’s what he asks audiences to trust and to support. If he pulls this off, there’s no stopping the juggernaut.

The first public performance takes place at the State Theatre on Thursday, June 27, with a further four performances that weekend. The production then heads to the Durban Playhouse Opera Theatre next month and Bloemfontein’s Sand du Plessis Theatre in October.

Tickets range from R180 to R220 with a 10 percent discount offered to groups of 10 or more.

• Dates: Pretoria SA State Theatre: June 27 & 28 at 8pm; June 29 at 3pm & 8pm and June 30 at 3pm. Durban Play- house Opera Theatre: July 19 at 8pm; July 20 at 3pm & 8pm; July 21 at 3pm. Book at Computicket.