COLUMN: Don’t stop believin’, hold on to that feeling

Star reporter Will Johnson got the ensemble experience as part of the Capitol’s Rock of Ages.

The local production of Rock of Ages involved over 100 people

Just after 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, as Rock of Ages late night party show at the Capitol was drawing to a head-banging, fist-pumping close, a high-heeled, pink-clad party fiend in a wig came staggering down the aisle dancing. He pushed belly up to the stage and for a moment it seemed like he might clamber up to join the cast.

The show’s star, Pat Beauchamp, was lung-hurling the opening lyrics of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” while the 19-person cast packed into the space behind him, party-rocking in front of the set’s Sunset Strip dive bar The Bourbon Room. My job, as part of the ensemble, was to ape the more intricate choreography of the foreground folk from behind my fully-stocked bar, twirling my rag and swinging a sloshing drink overhead.

A few months earlier I’d been cast in the ensemble of this show, the fourth musical from Black Productions, and director Lisel Forst had selected me for three parts related to lead Anna Backus’ character Sherrie Christian. First I appeared as her father, then as her bartender, and finally as her would-be seducer, a hyper-creep named Iggy. But for the majority of the show I was Big Tone, the Bourbon Room’s sunglass-clad, shot-pouring Stacee Jaxx fangirl.

As the chords of “Don’t Stop Believing’” swelled, I watched as audience members tentatively began to pop to their feet, following the example of the enthusiastic guy now flailing his hands overhead in worship. A few murmured nervously, maybe jealously, eye-balling the solo dancer as they grappled with their social inhibitions.

Are you allowed to dance in a theatre?

“Don’t stop believin!” we sang. “Hold on to that feeeeeeling!”

Perched on the steps above my head were Lisel’s husband Jeff Forst, who played the owner of the Bourbon Room, and Aryn Sherriff—a Kootenay diva turned L.A. madam who had just finished belting out a show-stopping rendition of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”. Mainstays on the Capitol stage, they’d each mentored the younger artists through our three-month rehearsal process.

“Oh, the musical, it never ends,” Forst sang, leather wings jutting from his shoulders.

“It goes on and on and on and on!”

In front of me was a quartet of exotic dancers, played by Nicole Courson, Marleah Staten, Emma Kjelson and Molly Strachan. Each had conjured a unique stripper persona while mastering a series of dance numbers under the tutelage of choreographer Mackenzie Hope and each night their sultry appearances evoked plentiful joy-yelps and sex-hoots from the appreciative crowd. Watching them sprint heel-tapping for their costume changes backstage gave me a whole new appreciation for the profession.

Hope, meanwhile, was sporting a handlebar-moustache, a blonde mullet wig and a pocket-stuffed pair of nunchucks as he leaped into the air and kicked out his legs. Playing the narrative conjurer Lonny Barnett, he’d carried the audience through the experience with an adolescent enthusiasm, spitting out F-bombs and rock aphorisms.

Earlier in the show, in my favourite meta moment of the play, he complained that rather than performing “deep and thoughtful theatre” he’s ended up in a musical with “poop jokes and Whitesnake songs!”

“Are you happy?” Beauchamp asked, as Drew.

”**** yeah, I’m happy!” he replies. “I love Whitesnake!”

Hope was surrounded by a bevy of Selkirk College music students, among them Taryn McMaster, Travis Flello, Sophie Marie Parent and Abhijith Kishan—some of whom made a splash earlier this year playing alongside alumni Kiesza. Their participation in the project was made possible by a partnership between the school and Black Productions, and McMaster in particular stood out as the histrionic protestor Regina Kuntz.

Somewhere in there were older community members Heather Gingras, Allan Richardson, Clarissa Thomson and Darren Fuss, who each brought their own comedic creation to the table. Fuss’ effeminate real estate developer Franz had the audience in stitches throughout, with his enthusiastic rendition of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” earning uproarious laughter.

And I can’t forget to mention Sydney Black, the woman who not only played Waitress #1 but also made the show possible. Her black curls bouncing, she was in the thick of it with us, foot-stamping her cowboy boots. And for the fresh-plucked cherry on top, appearing partway through the song to embrace her daughter, we had Juno-nominated singer Melody Diachun make an appearance.

“Streetlights, people!” we sang. “Whoah-oh-oh-OOOOOH!”

We fake-ran in place, thrashing our heads from left to right Baywatch-style, each fist pump punctuated by the drum-thrashing of local musician Lee Campese. I speed-blinked away brow sweat, working to keep up. The rest of the band—consisting of Robyn Lamb, Doug Stephenson, Darren Mahe and Dave Ronald and led by musical director Rick Lingard, who was singing offstage—picked up the volume as the audience began to join in.

For a moment it seemed like the song would draw to a close as the other performances had, with people happily enjoying the spectacle from the comfort of their seats. Nothing wrong with that, but the late-night crowd had been rowdy up to this point, booing the villains and singing along at every opportunity. Many of them were in costume. There was an electric energy in the room, and everyone could feel it.

Then a young woman came sprinting down the aisle, followed by a trio of friends. An elderly couple in the third row rose and embraced each other, dancing along. Things became oceanic as rows disgorged one by one. The audience mashed forward concert-style, and right in the front I could see my siblings Kathryn and Cody, face-bathed in stage light, getting jostled amidst a crowd of drunken dancers. That day they’d driven across the province to catch the show.

“Don’t stop believing!” we sang, our voices backed by hundreds of accompanying strangers’.

“Hold on to that feeling!”

I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but over a hundred people had conspired to create that moment. There was our army of backstage girls, led by stage manager Olivia Bogaard, and at the back of the theatre was our sound guy Norm Lepine, who somehow got us all mic-checked and performance-prepped in only a few days. Everywhere you looked someone was doing some vital task: running projectors, replacing props, doing laundry. I’m not even confident I know all the jobs that were being done.

And here it was, the culmination of months of rehearsals, the moment we’d all been working towards. There was this feeling in my chest, a sort of euphoric heart-thrumming, that I haven’t felt since high school. For a moment we weren’t actors, we weren’t singers, we weren’t dancers—we were 80s rockstars faced with an arena of adoring fans.

While we neared the end of the song, I was mimicking Ty Wright’s gyrations as he leaped around the stage in a pair of zebra print ginch with white tights and leather chaps—the sort of image that permanently mind-scalds itself into your memory. Earlier in the show, during his rendition of “Dead or Alive”, he had slingshot a pair of panties into the audience. On this particular evening a charitable audience member had taken it upon themselves to chuck the panties back onstage.

He later told me, describing one of those magical theatre moments you could never replicate, that as we moved into our final celebratory arm-raising move in “Don’t Stop Believin'” that night he realized the panties were laying there within his grasp.

Without missing a beat he swept them off the ground, hooked them in his teeth, then raised his middle finger defiantly at the sky.

“Don’t Stop!”

 

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