Full Disclosure: I've never seen T.S.O's bread & butter Holiday shows, so I've no comparison for the Beethoven's Last Night show at E.J. Thomas. If you're a big T.S.O. fan, I apologize for my lack of previous T.S.O. experience. If you're not a T.S.O. fan, well then, it probably doesn't matter as they seem to be polarizing among music fans and you probably hate them.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra leader Paul O'Neill has been successfully riding the group's holiday tour for more than a decade, bringing rocked-up, elaborately arranged takes on Christmas tunes to the masses and making a killing in the process.
So, by bucking the "if ain't broke, don't fix it" ethos prevalent in the entertainment business (they've made six Saw movies, so far and Jay-Z's probably already working on The Blueprint 4: Dollar$ & Cent$) O'Neil and the phalanx of musicians, singers and crew that make up the T.S.O are taking a bit of a chance by turning their decade old rock opera Beethoven's Last Night into an odd hybrid of rock concert and theatrical reading, which he referred to as "rock theatre" Friday night at The University of Akron's E.J. Thomas Hall.
The Akron show was only the second show of T.S.O's first ever non-holiday tour and the first tour in several years that the arena-filling band has downsized for theaters and concert halls. And, by some cosmic tour routing coincidence, the show was also on the 183rd anniversary of Ludwig Van Beethoven's actual last night.
T.S.O. is known for the grand scale on which it does everything but the Beethoven's Last Night staging was relatively simple with the nattily dressed 14 piece band, (two guitarists, bass, drums, two keyboards and an eight person string section that included some local players, plus 10 vocalists) set up in a traditional rock show format with the various singers/characters entering stage right to perform their songs with narrator Brian Hicks--a fan favorite--filling in the back-story in rhymed verse, no less. The back drop of three large church-style window panes also doubled as video screens featuring art from official band (and renowned fantasy/sci-fi) artist Greg Hildebrandt and even scenes from the film Immortal Beloved.
The not-always-easy-to-follow story follows the famed composer (Rob Evans) last night on earth. Mephistopheles (Jeff Scott Soto enjoying being "evil") appears and tells Beethoven he's come to collect his soul before offering to relinquish his hold on the composer's soul in exchange for erasing all of his music from history. What follows includes a visit from Fate (Valentina Porter) and her dwarf son Twist (an animated Jay Pierce) a Capra-esque trip through Beethoven's life including looks at his "immortal beloved" Teresa (Chloe Lowery) the young Beethoven (John Brink) and some Muses singing in Latin.
Oh yeah, it's a bit convoluted as a proper rock opera should be, and any one coming to the story cold may have gotten lost a few times. Despite the resonant voice of Hicks' and his lively and animated narration, there were stretches when the show's momentum came dangerously close to a full stop. But, just when the mind might start to wander, say after a few of the slow, dramatic power ballads such as the Beethoven sung The Moment , O'Neil and primary songwriting partner Jon Oliva throw in an uptempo songs. The dramatic, start stop thump of Mephistopheles or a caffeinated medley of classical pop hits including a lite metal take on Requiem (The Fifth) which underpinned the piece's famous four notes with a snaking, chunka-chunka riff. The latter also gave long haired guitarists Chris Caffery and Al Pitrelli (also musical director) a few minutes to bang their heads and show off their fleet fingers (blond-maned Caffery also frequently indulged in the classic hair-metal power ballad move; the slow-motion, side-to-side headbang).
As for the singers, they all afforded themselves quite well with beefy Evan's booming-voiced Beethoven wrenching every ounce of emotion from the big ballads Who Is This Child, and an impassioned This Is Who We Are. Soto made the most of his satanic solo on the fun, odd-metered rocker Misery and Teresa (again, my bad) imbued the love song I'll Keep Your Secrets with the appropriate amount of melodrama.
And, O'Neill and Oliva pack the more theatrical songs (as opposed to the more rocking songs) with plenty of big vocal moments, long sustained notes over fading chords and big crescendos for dramatic arm spreads and reaches into the upper ranges of their voices.
The fact that T.S.O. will be heading to Broadway in the not to distant future would seem to make Beethoven's Last Night a bit of a transitional project. The group knows how to write a big stagey song and with jukebox musicals all the rage and T.S.O.'s devoted fan base it's almost a lock to be successful.
The sold-out crowd of couples, families and a smattering of symphonic/prog-rock loving longhairs certainly treated the show as a play rather than a concert, mostly sitting quietly (except for some folks apparently unaware that unlike the show's protagonist, everyone can hear their frickin' phone ringing), unsure when to applaud and generally behaving like theatre-goers rather than rock concert lovers
Was it cheesy?
There were Middle aged long-haired dudes striking the classic wide-legged rock pose wearing tuxedos (with tails!), a hyper active fiddle player (Roddy Chong, another fan favorite) occasionally hopping around the stage like a coked-up jack-rabbit and playing his electric fiddle behind his back, Hendrix-style. There was even some choreography from the chorus/chorus girls and scenes from a Gary Oldman movie that, though appropriate to the subject matter, still lifted me right out of the show's illusion.
Was it entertaining?
For T.S.O. fans, only some the pacing of the two-hour set might have been a problem, but the show earned a loud standing ovation from the audience. For open and/or ironic minded newbies it's hard not to enjoy a rock guitar-driven medley that includes snatches of Flight of the Bumblebee, Ode To Joy and Piano Sonata No. 16 played lustily by the aforementioned long-hairs while multicolored lasers criss-cross the hall and dry ice billows slowly from the stage.
I'm talkin' LASERS, people!
It's unlikely that Beethoven's Last Night will gain the band many new converts unless an innate hatred of Christmas music has been the thing keeping haters/uninterested listeners from basking in T.S.O.'s out-sized symphonic glory. But, the odd format was an oddly entertaining mix of rock bombast with theatrical drama and talented singers/musicians selling it all with every ounce of their being.
Besides, who doesn't love Flight of the Bumblebee played on electric guitars?