The Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s production of Amphion reviewed
by Sage Viscovi
A wise man once said, “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n roll.”
This statement has never been truer for the resilient Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS), who have developed a cult following in Baltimore since 2007 (but insist that they have never, ever, not once EVER been a cult). Complete with an ambitious team of actors, writers, musicians, and artists, BROS is the next evolutionary leap in Baltimore’s musical theatre scene, putting on an average of three original productions each year.
It started with a basement, a group of friends, and a dream: an enormous story that would be told through the awesome power of rock.
Since then, thousands of fans have migrated across the Mid-Atlantic to witness their powerhouse performances. This summer’s original production, Amphion, was first performed in 2011, but this version brought a new twist to what was already undoubtedly a stellar performance: a queer female lead.
Sarah Gorman as Amphion
Played by Sarah Gorman, Amphion, the official songsmith of Emperor Justinian (Mike Smith), is a proud, bodacious woman whose incredible gift is used solely to please her lord. This unexpectedly changes, however, once the Persians voyage into Constantinople to sign a treaty to divide up the land.
The Shah’s ambassador, Bozorgmehr (Ted Alsedek), arrives with his conniving assistant Borzuya (Mark Miller) and rebellious but beautiful daughter Nasreen (Melissa LaMartina), who falls in love with Amphion after sharing their mutual passion for music. But trouble lies ahead, for this love is misunderstood and strictly forbidden in Byzantium, while in the meantime Borzuya schemes to steal Amphion’s supposed ability to summon the Gazellynx: a mythical creature that possesses mysterious powers.
Melissa LaMartina as Nasreen (left) and Sarah Gorman as Amphion (right)
Amphion started out with an electric burst of energy, as dynamic bangs and hefty power chords blared from the production’s pit band Gazellynxxx, directed by Nick Jewett, who humorously sipped away at their respective alcoholic beverages and provided commentary during the show. Part of me resented that it was so blaring, since it made it difficult to hear the actors’ voices while singing (perhaps this would be improved by not sitting in the front row like I did?). The acoustics of the location, the Zion Lutheran Church, did not help as well, but I certainly would not have picked a different venue because it was so outstandingly gorgeous. The elegant environment added to the production, and I truly felt transported back into 6th century BC.
Vocally, I was earnestly impressed. Amphion’s character would naturally be extraordinary, being a songsmith and also the lead, and Gorman belted raspy, dramatic tunes like a pro, from the uplifting “Festival Showcase” to the sweet “Ballad of Nasreen” to the vengeful “Protest Song.”
Nasreen’s voice was tender yet mighty, as she stood atop a large platform while a nearby fan fiercely blew at her ravenous locks during “Cup & Ball.” Bozorgmehr and Borzuya had their shining moment towards the end in “In Blood,” a haunting retaliation song illuminated by strobe lights as they prepare to take care of Amphion once and for all.
Nasreen (LaMartina) singing “Cup & Ball”
But there was one track that stood out among the rest, one so forceful and remarkable that for a moment I couldn’t believe I wasn’t watching a Broadway musical. “Wretched Soul,” a duet sung by supporting roles Empress Theodora (Christina Holmes) and Justinian’s advisor Narses (Robert Harris), interrogated Narses on his true allegiance in this time of treachery: his lord Justinian or his devoted friend Amphion. Holmes supplied eerie, operatic high notes while Harris belted out in equal effort. Props to both actors on a truly unique performance.
Although the performance was impressive, there is always room for improvement. One of the first things I noticed was that the dialogue in this play was evocative of the time period, embellished with a regal tone and extensive vocabulary. Unfortunately, I noticed a detachment from this regal tone in the second half of the play, where the jokes increased but the baroque vocabulary decreased. Continuity is key in maintaining a seamless presentation, and this was a distraction.
The other element that was inconsistent in this production was the level of active drama. During the majority of the performance, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation. My anxiety levels were definitely higher than usual at the end of the first act where Amphion’s hand is cut off, but then something felt off after that. Then Amphion lost her other arm… and then both of her legs… and then finally was stabbed to death.
The improbability that she would survive such a beating reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail; the only phrase running through my mind was “Tis but a scratch,” in reference to The Black Knight getting his limbs sliced off by King Arthur but somehow continuing to fight back. That Amphion continued to lose body parts felt like a running gag when I’m not sure it was supposed to, and the dialogue while this was happening was actually quite serious in contrast.
The first act was just so strong, in comparison the second act could use some revision and tightening up. I didn’t mind at all that Amphion died at the end, since letting her live would not have been realistic historically, but the production would benefit from balancing the unevenness between the two acts, both in purposeful humor and language.
Amphion was a phenomenal feat for BROS and everyone involved in it, and the audience loved experiencing this unique spectacle in action. Rock on!
The cast of Amphion at curtain call
For more information about Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s next production in Fall 2016, Brides of Tortuga, visit their website at http://www.baltimorerockopera.org!
Author Sage Viscovi is is a recent MICA graduate and regular theater contributor for BmoreArt.
Photos by Baltimore Rock Opera Society
Top image (L-R): Ted Alsedek as Bozorgmehr, Christina Holmes as Theodora, and Mike Smith as Justinian