Anyone expecting Rolling Thunder Vietnam to be just another loud head-banging rock concert is in for a surprise. Yes there is loud rock music, but in this show it is beautifully arranged and produced so that you can hear the lyrics – and in this show the lyrics have context – and in this context some of these lyrics are very powerful and moving.
Described in the publicity as a concert drama, Rolling Thunder Vietnam is a remarkable production by any measure. From the very first guitar chords of Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride, the audience is hurled into an emotional rollercoaster ride through the period of history defined by the Vietnam War.
Billed as a concert of songs ‘that defined a generation’, Rolling Thunder Vietnam delivers much more than it promises, leaving those members of the audience who have lived through that period, as well as those who only know it from second-hand accounts, deeply moved by the potency of the songs and their presentation.
Bryce Hallett has provided an electrifying script, drawn from actual letters and first-hand interviews, distilled into a compelling account of three young every-men, two Australians and one American, drawn into that war. Tom Oliver, Wes Carr and Matthew Pearce play the men and address the audience directly as they recount their experiences.
Kimberley Hodgson and Vanessa Krummenacher portray various women in their lives, and Will Ewing provides back-up vocals and a multitude of other characters. All sing solos, and produce brilliant harmonies in the ensemble numbers.
Their stories are interwoven with key songs from the period. These songs weave seamlessly through the narrative, informing and enhancing the text, and becoming powerful and moving declarations of love, loss and protest.
Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy is sung by Tom Oliver to describe the reaction of his parents and friends to the news that he has volunteered to go to war. With Help Me Make It Through The Night, Kimberley Hodgson describes the loneliness of separation. Kimberley Hodgson again, achieves the near-impossible by managing to turn Killing Me Softly With His Song into a beautifully sung, heart-wrenching response to the news of the death her fiancé. Each of the six soloists is superb, equally persuasive as both actor and singer.
The beautifully balanced sound allowed the virtuoso five-piece band, lead from the key-boards by Musical Director, Chong Lim, to impress mightily with its ability to move effortlessly through a soundscape which embraces the head-banging anarchy of Steppenwolf’s, Born To Be Wild, the Stones, Paint it Black and a deeply moving arrangement of Simon and Garfunkel’s anthem, Bridge Over Trouble Waters.
The musical arrangements allow space for the audience to appreciate scorching solos from guitarists Stuart Fraser and Brett Garsed, Craig Newman’s driving bass, and Angus Burchall’s superbly textured percussion.
David Berthold’s direction is tight and imaginative. The performers toss dialogue between each other as they enter and exit the stage. Each song is delineated with its own unique staging. Each performer is superbly showcased to display individual strengths and talents, and even some impressively energetic physicality.
Adam Gardnir’s splendid setting is particularly evocative, with four huge video screens displaying Toby Harding’s brilliant, ever-changing montage of brilliant archival and abstract images, in front of a textural background of beautifully-lit camouflage-material drapes. His costumes are subtle, attractive and appropriate.
Much more than a concert. Much more than a documentary. Rolling Thunder Vietnam is a superbly presented theatrical experience which will leave you entertained, informed and surprisingly moved.
Rolling Thunder Vietnam
Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Performance: Sunday 7 September 2014
Rolling Thunder Vietnam is currently performing across Australia. For more information and tour dates, visit: www.rollingthundervietnam.com for details.
Image: Cast of Rolling Thunder Vietnam
Review: Bill Stephens