Story by Justin Allen, photos by Brooke Hall
As I sat in the audience at opening night of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s newest production, Valhella, I found myself realizing that BROS are officially one of my favorite things about living in this city. Baltimore is home to several amazing theater companies, one might even argue that the city is rediscovering its love affair with the theater. But you can’t compare BROS to other companies in Baltimore. They’re pointed in an entirely different direction. And one thing that sets BROS apart is that they set the stakes high and go big every time. It’s as if they don’t know any other way. Maybe part of BROS popularity stems from the fact that many of us would like to imagine ourselves living that “all or nothing” ethos. And maybe that’s the underlying gratification that supporters and audience members get when interacting with the BROS. We want to go big too, so thanks for letting us participate.
Valhella is the latest in the BROS ongoing bid to obtain immortality. After seeing it twice I will attest that they’re one step closer. Upon entering the theater one is immediately struck by the set. Twice I heard comparisons to Jim Henson’s, The Dark Crystal, which in my mind is a fitting compliment. The entire stage was transformed into an ancient tree that feels impossibly real. While the audience files in, a lone pixie, dressed in white, serenades the audience with bitter sweet songs accompanied by banjo. By the time the lights dim, you’ve been well prepped to live the myth soon to unfold on stage. If you partake in the home brew being served in the lobby you might just find yourself convinced that you’re a viking too. The show opens with a moving chorus delivered with striking harmonies. The music accompanies an animation that sets up the narrative. So as not spoil the show, here are some highlights.
The piece feels like a morality play set against a Grimm’s Fairy Tale with a healthy dose of modern cynicism about theology for good measure. The gods, Loki and Odin, sit on top of either side of the stage, as if they were a devil and angel perched upon shoulders. The action centers around a village that is in desperate need of saving. The protagonists are three handicapped brothers sired in secret by Odin. Loki tests each of the brothers while in search for a way to feed their fellow villagers after their last hunter dies.
Loki, played by Greg Bowen, stares the crowd down for what seems like an eternity between lines. His patience is potent and when he finally rises to speak or sing a true demon emerges. Loki’s main number is punctuated by a performance of the movement team that have been an integral part of this show and past rock operas. The team incorporates elements of dance into elaborate sequences that elevates these productions to another level.
Throughout the middle of the opera the three brothers are tested by mystical creatures in the forest. Danielle Robinette, playing the part of Hel, gives a riveting performance and scares the bejesus out of one of the bumbling brothers. The conceptualization for each of these creatures was excellent. The costuming and gadgetry were captivating. BROS productions are accentuated by the technical wizardry of Chuck Green whose animated wolf mask is one of the most memorable parts of the show.
On to the climax. Meet Robert Bradley who could very well be the long lost love child of King Diamond and Rob Halford. Bradley plays Kar, who ends up being the coolest of all the brothers when he’s given a singing voice that literally blows everyone away. His is a heavy metal falsetto not to be toyed with. Bradley could have ruled absolute over Los Angeles in 1982. It’s not difficult to imagine him strutting up and down the Sunset Strip in leather chaps, hair teased to the stratosphere, fronting a platinum-selling metal band while fostering a ridiculous coke habit that would have been kicked by the time he was ready for his VH1 Behind the Music episode and subsequent comeback tour in the 90’s. Yes, he’s that good. The BROS always seem to find at least one superstar for each of their productions. This time Bradley fills those shoes nicely.
Valhella culminates in a battle between good and evil played out with guitar solos, giant painted puppets (which I want to see more of), banshees, demons, and all manner of mythological, theatrical goodness. It was awesome. Worthy of the standing ovation it received. As I walked out of the theater the look on the faces of those who had just witnessed Valhella spoke to its awesomeness.
Overall, the quality of Valhella illustrates the evolution of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society. There are several things about this production that are noticeably better than the last one. And therein lies one of the reasons why we love these guys. This is a work in progress and we’re watching them build something amazing. The story unfolding onstage is just part of a larger story that we feel privileged to get a peek at whenever we sit in on a dress rehearsal. Every time I go to the Autograph Playhouse, the theater they’re restoring, I see progress. Every time they put on a production, the whole experience is that much more professional. Put these observations into the context of the scale at which they’re operating and you can’t help but realize that the BROS phenomenon has the potential to grow into something epic.
It’s hard enough to start a project with a group of people and maintain it for any period of time. These guys have a huge team that work incredibly hard, and they’ve got great traction. I’m calling it right now, the Baltimore Rock Opera Society is gonna be huge. You can feel it when you’re sitting in the audience and you can see it in the dazed look on the faces of the crowd as they file out of the theater that the BROS built.
I fully believe that in years to come they’ll be filling theaters like the Hippodrome and selling action figures, soundtracks, cinema quality features, and tickets to sold out world tours. This is your chance to say you saw them when…