Rock operas operate in a strange theatrical space. They’re not as lyrically narrative as traditional operas and musicals, but they tell more of a story than a rock concept album. Among the more famous and successful ones are The Who’s Tommy and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Composer Mark Baughman makes his Capital Fringe debut by trying his hand at the genre, presenting an original piece entitled Release: A Rock Opera.
Release introduces audiences to Amy Ryan (Lexie Martin), a plucky lab assistant trying to make a difference at the shabby St. Mary’s Veterans Medical Clinic. When working with an autistic teenager named Patrick, she decides to incorporate some innovation by combining psychology with neurobiology, aiming to write about the experiment in a medical journal. Her superior, Dr. Sharon Hendricks (Christine Asero), insists that her attempt to change things up at the medical facility is ridiculous and that she should focus on the very basics of her job, which is to handle “required lab tests and paperwork.”
But it becomes clear that Amy is onto something. Just as Patrick (Theodore Sapp) is about to be committed to an insane asylum, he suddenly breaks out into song with “Breach in the Wall.” Another patient, Thom Wilson (Carlos Ramirez), who consoled himself with drugs and is the son of a famous doctor whose notoriety attracts ardent fans, tells his father that Amy helped him become clean for three months. Even Dr. Hendricks understands that Amy’s research has something to offer the medical community because she steals Amy’s work and tries to pass it off as her own.
Singing in a rock opera, particularly a new one, is challenging. Lexie Martin’s role as Amy Ryan is particularly difficult because her theatrical singing voice lacks a rock ’n’ roll roughness. But the sweetness she conveys makes sense: Her character has to sound optimistic and full of dreams. Theodore Sapp, as Patrick, sings with a vocal force on par with Freddie Mercury. Carlos Ramirez, as Thom Wilson, takes inspiration from Bono, and Harv Lester, as Dr. Wilson, channels Thom Yorke. Both singers combine the edginess and precise inflection a rock opera requires.
Despite the artificial opening number that pays forced homage to Orange Is the New Black, audiences are able to connect with the show as they begin to understand Amy’s aim to make a difference in people’s lives. At that point, the play hits its groove and the songs, which, for the most part, are played well, provide another dimension to the story. There’s a typical happy ending, complete with an emotional final number, even though the music sounds more like Blink-182. The performers’ motivations seem unclear during an initial viewing, but Release still has a lot to offer.
At Elstad Auditorium at Gallaudet University through July 23. 800 Florida Ave. NE. $17. (202) 737-7230. capitalfringe.org.