Jim Steinman is a living American rock legend. Best known for power ballads made famous by the likes of Meatloaf, Bonnie Tyler, Air Supply and Celine Dion, his music is deeply ingrained into pop culture the world over. Like many song writers responsible for the most popular music ever recorded, his fame has never matched those who are centre stage. Toby Francis’ new script is mainly a monologue that incorporates the cabaret format. He performs it with an accompanist, along with a support vocalist who provides a female voice for several numbers. The story gives us some background into Steinman’s work and subsequent estrangement with Meatloaf, then goes on to an imagined depiction of Steinman pitching to us, an idea for a rock opera. Neverland was the precursor to Steinman’s seminal Bat Out Of Hell, but Francis’ vision is assembled like a concerto of greatest hits.
The song list is selected wisely, with many of Steinman’s crowd-pleasers included. Francis is on stage, dressed in denim, wielding a guitar and a microphone stand. On his right is musical director Andrew Worboys on a grand piano. It seems an awkward arrangement, but the rock cabaret works. The glam quality in Steinman’s songs provide a romantic flamboyance that makes sense for the context. Pre-programmed backing tracks give the songs their arena style volume, but all vocals are sung live. There is no doubt that the strongest element of Love And Death And An American Guitar is its standard of singing. The notes that emerge from Francis and his female counterpart Noni McCallum’s voices are astounding. One of the great joys of live performance is to be in the presence of superhuman talent, and these singers’ abilities are beyond what any combination of iPod and earphones can encapsulate. Also accomplished is Francis’ storytelling and the script he has prepared for the show. There is a beautiful lyricism to his writing, although the story does lack vividness at times. His skills as an actor are persuasive enough for the production, but the command over his physicality requires training.
Much as Steinman is one of the greatest song writers ever to surface, he does not have the makings of a rock god. Successful rock stars lend style, attitude and personality to the stage. They need to resonate sexuality, danger, confidence and power. In his show, Francis is positioned somewhere between cabaret, musical theatre and rock. He has a vulnerability that is alluring, but there is a politeness that belongs to the more formal world of musicals. The songs belong to stadiums that seat thousands, but Love And Death And An American Guitar translates them for a much smaller venue, and an entirely different genre of show. Francis sheds new light on these classic tunes, allowing their many fans to fall in love all over again. To borrow from the man himself, “it’s so hard to resist and it’s all coming back…”