Review: American Anthems – Corn Exchange, Cambridge

Route 66, the fabled American highway immortalised on film and in song – a fitting backdrop for a new rock musical, especially one produced in association with legendary motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson. Sadly this is one show that arrives with two flat tyres, a stalled engine, and turns out to be the stage equivalent of watching a multi-car pile-up.

There are so many elements that don’t work here; it is difficult to know where to start. Fundamentally the question needs to be asked if this is actually a musical. Ross Mills, Ged Graham (who also stars) and Ryan Mills have created a paper-thin central story about a legendary rock star, Rocky Rhodes, who walked out of a concert in Madison Square Garden in the 90s and hasn’t been seen since. Twenty-odd years later and radio station Route 66 FM teams up with his former roadie to head out on a trip across the USA to find him. The plot, such as it is, serves nothing more as an excuse to play nearly 50 American classic songs. Apart from a couple of half-hearted efforts (a comedy vicar joins the search for Rocky as an excuse to sing Son Of A Preacher Man and Living On A Prayer), songs are not integrated into the action and long sections pass without any narrative as we hurtle through the music catalogue.

When there is dialogue it is of questionable quality. There are echoes of both We Will Rock You and Rock Of Ages but those seem almost works of Tolstoy compared to this. Of course a rock musical shouldn’t be serious but it does need a story and here it seems to be a tribute show that is occasionally interrupted by some weak dialogue. When a character has to turn to the audience once to ask if they are getting it and a second time to explain a line was a joke you know you’re in trouble. When actors forget lines or have to ask for their notes to introduce the next scene, things descend from the comical into the ridiculous.

Ok, so the script doesn’t work but many in the audience will have come to hear the music. Therein lies the second major problem. These anthems have stood the test of time as they were performed by artists who knew how to deliver a song. Here it often seems that the cast are struggling with the sheer range of many of these power ballads. Lyrics are lost with only the ends of lines being sung with conviction. There is also a tendency to confuse vocal power with shouting, further distorting clarity.

Performances aren’t helped by the sound design that leaves even spoken lines struggling to be heard. Alongside sound, lighting often leaves performers in semi-darkness and the billed spectacular staging is little more than a Harley parked stage right, a bar stage left, two American Flags, a neon sign and a star cloth.
Midway through the second act, the ‘plot’ is stopped for 20 minutes to introduce 80s rock star John Parr, who abandons any pretence of being integrated into a musical and performs a set of his material. No reason, no plot device, just a straightforward guest appearance.

It all adds up for a muddled and confusing evening, not particularly well executed. The overwhelming feeling is of embarrassment for the company, desperately trying to encourage the audience to put their hands in the air and clap, but after the countless and out-of-context cries of ‘come on, Cambridge’, even the cast gives up.

American Anthems needs to decide what it is and fast. If it wants to be a rock musical, it needs to find the strong story that it so badly lacks. If it just wants to be a celebration of classic American road anthems, fine – just cut back the 2 hour 45 minute running time, improve the production values and focus on performance and delivery.

As it is, this is one road trip that needs the urgent attention of a breakdown service – that’s if the show isn’t already a total write-off.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

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