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Review - Power Balladz & Freud's Last Session

Lovers of the hair bands of 70s, 80s and 90s who find Rock of Ages just too intellectually complex shall rejoice at the arrival of Power Balladz, the show that puts the "z" in "rock anthem." I'm just not certain where exactly it puts it.

Written by Mike Todaro (who directs) and Dan Nycklemoe, both of whom co-conceived with Peter Rothstein, Power Balladz is essentially an arena concert boiled down to a cabaret act. We're at a performance of an unnamed cover band which is sponsored by the Council Of Creative Knowledge (figure out the acronym for yourself) and by Slanket, "the original fleece blanket with sleeves." Fronted by chums since 9th grade, Dieter Bierbrauer and Scott Richard Foster (the characters take on the names of the actors playing them), the band's repertoire includes hits by the likes of Journey ("Faithfully"), Guns N' Roses ("Sweet Child o' Mine"), Whitesnake ("Here I Go Again"), Poison ("Every Rose Has Its Thorn") Aerosmith ("Dream On") and Queen ("We Are the Champions"). I understand they also know some Damn Yankees but I don't recall hearing anything by Adler and Ross.

The between song patter includes a lecture on what elements combine to create a power ballad, a lesson on how power ballads brought down the Berlin Wall, a rock history trivia quiz, a lyric challenge and shooting blasts from "The Frickin' T-Shirt Cannon" into the audience. In a history-making moment, we get to watch the taping of the first-ever music video for Styx's "Come Sail Away."

In the sliver-thin plot, it turns out that the girl who broke Dieter's heart in high school (Mary Mossberg) is in the audience. Since she's also a power balladeer (who can change her hair "from Plain Jane to Lita Ford" in 30 seconds), the boys invite her to join in the festivities, making our hero contemplate a second chance at romance. But with lead-ins like, "I'm thinking cowboy... I'm thinking outlaw... I'm thinking sexy... I'm thinking... Bon Jovi!!" (to introduce "Wanted, Dead or Alive") and "Speaking of Heart..." ("Alone"), there are, thankfully, no attempts to force the songs into the story or to make them illuminate the characters. It's just lighthearted, nostalgic fun and the audience was lapping it up the night I attended; more and more of them singing along as the evening progressed. (Something I wouldn't recommend for A Little Night Music or Next To Normal, but it seemed acceptable here.)

While there's a lot of good-natured silliness in Power Balladz, the three charismatic, strong-singing leads and the on-stage musicians (Conductor Karen Dryer on keyboard, Jason Bozzi and Sean Driscoll on guitar, Mark Vanderpoel on bass and Brad Carbone on drums) play it straight for the songs; performing with straightforward passion for the genre.

Early arrivals are entertained by various bits of trivia ("Is it Meatloaf or Meat Loaf?") and discussion questions ("Has your opinion of Ronald Reagan changed since the 80s?) flashed on video screens and those who stay after can join the company in live band power ballad karaoke. Song choices include "Paradise By The Dashboard Light," "Hotel California," "Somebody To Love" and "Always." The latter is noted as being by Bon Jovi, for those of us who might be wondering why a lovely Irving Berlin tune would be classified as a power ballad.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Dieter Bierbrauer, Mary Mossberg and Scott Richard Foster; Bottom: Dieter Bierbrauer and Scott Richard Foster.

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"Did it really happen?" That's what some audience members may wonder after taking in Mark St. Germain's clever and engrossing two-hander, Freud's Last Session, which depicts a visit between the aging atheist Sigmund Freud and the young, newly-Christian C.S. Lewis, who had satirized the famed psychiatrist in The Pilgrim's Regress.

Most likely not, but thankfully good theatre such as this helps fill the gaps that history overlooks. Set in the study of Freud's London home (recreated in elegant classic details by Brian Prather), the playwright places their theological discussion on a date where thoughts of death loom heavily for Brits. It is September 3rd, 1939; the day that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain reluctantly announced over the radio that Hitler had ignored his demand to withdraw German troops from Poland, forcing England to declare a state of war. All of London is braced for the bombings that will eventually follow. On top of that, Freud himself is very near death; the cancer in his mouth letting off such a foul smell that his own dog avoids him.

Nevertheless, St. Germain and director Tyler Marchant keep the 75-minute piece lively, interesting and frequently funny, with the respectful young scribe doing his best to defend his positions on the existence of God, the morality of suicide and the necessity of pre-marital chastity against the impish and wry-humored elder. ("No sex before marriage? It's not only naive, it's mindless cruelty. Like sending a young man off to perform his first concerto with an orchestra when the only time he's ever played his piccolo was alone in his room.") And yes, there is the inevitable mini-session on the couch.

The two actors have excellent chemistry and are individually splendid. Martin Rayner is handed the juicier lines as Freud and plays them with the amusing self-satisfaction of a man who is delighted with his own brilliance and celebrity, despite his continual pain and realization of his own mortality. As Lewis, the tall and chiseled-faced Mark H. Dold is nicely full of reserve and manners; a passionate thinker who is continually absorbing the thoughts of others. Watching the bond between them thicken into real affection, despite their disagreements, is what gives the play an engaging heart.

Photo of Martin Rayner and Mark H. Dold by Kevin Sprague.

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