At the Autograph Playhouse May 18-20 baltimorerockopera.org
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You want a show? How’s this: It is the time of the gods, and the venerable Odin (Gaines Johnston) has broken his truce with Loki (Greg Bowen), god of the underworld. They had promised one another not to have mortal children. But Odin has impregnated a mortal, and she births three sons—one blind, one deaf, and one mute. In his mercy, Odin spares them; Loki, ever the clever one, spies the sons and concocts a plot to use them against their father.
Thus begins the Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s (http://baltimorerockopera.org/} (BROS) epic production Valhella, two hours of bombastic lights and sounds and costumes and a set to match. In the land of Midgard, sickness has swept a village. The chief and last living hunter has just succumbed to the illness, and the villagers moan with weariness as they mourn their leader. The three brothers, who have been good for nothing save playing music, are the only ones not sick, because—unbeknownst to them—Odin’s blood flows through their veins. They decide to hunt, as without new hunters, the village is doomed. One by one they venture into the woods, only to encounter creatures sent by Loki to entice the brothers with song.
The first brother to venture out is Ivar the Deaf (Ryan Dunne; because he is deaf, Ivar communicates through motion, and Philip Doccolo “translates” his movements into voice from offstage), who meets Fenrir the wolf (Jack Sossman). Fenrir offers Ivar his hearing so he may sing a melody to rid the village of sickness. Har the Blind (Keith Becraft) encounters Jörmungandr the snake (Brett Messiora), who gives Har his sight to read a melody that will bring milk forth from the village’s sickly cows; Kar the Mute (Robert Bradley) finds Hel (Danielle Robinette), a skeletal demon woman, whose melody will ensure the villagers follow him anywhere.
The BROS are fully committed to visual pyrotechnics. The Autograph Playhouse’s stage has been thoroughly converted into a forest, vines and branches encroaching on its edges like ivy strangling a tree. At its heart is the World Tree, a tangled mess of trunks and limbs and leaves, around which the villagers settle. Fenrir is perhaps the most impressive element of the show: He is a 7-foot-tall wolf with glowing green eyes, long fangs and teeth, and monstrous feet that stomp menacingly. A handful of performers in green Lycra body suits form a chain behind Messiora to invoke the snake. And Hel, the demon woman, is magical, with Robinette standing atop a platform shrouded in a glittering black skirt and motioning with shredded black wings as she shrieks and seduces the meek, mute Kar.
But this is not just a play. This is a rock opera. Musical group the Beerded wrote and arranged all of the music, which the group performs live from a small elevated room embedded at the back of the stage like a treehouse. Not all of the actors are quite up to their singing parts, but there are plenty of standout performances. As Robinette woos Kar, her voice slides from sweet and melty to devilish and screechy, demonstrating an impressive vocal range that elicited spontaneous applause at one recent performance. Once Kar, mute throughout the first act, finds his voice, he uses it, then overuses it, then uses it some more, belting out lines and jumping octaves like the lead singer of an ’80s hair band, garnering his own applause. And Bowen is deliciously evil as Loki, perched atop a rocky cliff at the edge of the stage, grinning like a deranged jester, his deep voice booming both script and song.
Valhella is so impressive that it’s easy to overlook the fair number of technical and mechanical errors that popped up throughout the night we saw the show. Microphones fell off; voices were too loud, then too quiet; set pieces didn’t work quite as planned. But when an amateur group takes on something as grandiose and impressive as this show, it’s more than forgiven, as are some of the subpar vocal performances. In short: You want a show? This is a fucking show.