by Kathryn Kitt
Imagine a woman with the sultry looks of Joan Jett and the voice of Janis Joplin, and who is a Polish Holocaust survivor, and you’ve got the autobiographical musical of Rock and Roll Refugee. This musical is based on the life of Genya Ravan, the lead singer and creator of Goldie and the Gingerbreads, an all-female rock band. In 1962, Genya—who was named Genyusha as a child—escaped with her parents and sister Helen from Nazi-occupied Poland to live in the Lower East Side, where her parents managed a Lollipop Lounge.
Rock and Roll Refugee has a book by Chris Henry and includes Genya Ravan’s own original tunes, with famous songs from the 1950s and 60s mixed in. Music Director/Arranger Daniel A. Weiss composed additional songs as well.
The setup of the show is mostly played on two levels, with “rock star” Genya (played by Katrina Rose Dideriksen) performing on the top level and the teenage Genyusha (played by Dee Roscioli) appearing in the flashbacks of her life on the ground level. Three actresses play Genya from a young age to her teenage years and then to her rocker years.
Rock and Roll Refugee is a very gritty musical with an inspiring story, from Genyusha’s childhood abuse to finding her singing voice and the ability to keep a brave face throughout various abuses and tragedies. Ms. Renyan’s story is a truly sad, yet inspiring account of survival and triumph. The staging of Ms. Roscioli as Genya Ravan on stage plays like a muse to Ms. Dideriksen’s teenage Genyusha.
The cast is mostly comprised of a female ensemble, and actors who alternate between roles. Charlotte Cohn as Genyusha/Goldie’s mother and Chris Thom as her father brought the pathos of being survivors, but with the iron fist parenting that ultimately breaks Genyusha and her sister’s spirit. The dynamic between Ms. Cohn and Ms. Dideriksen is truly heartbreaking. Knowing that she is not the favored child, Genuysha must fulfill her own destiny, and without her mother’s approval.
As Genuysha, Ms. Dideriksen gives a very powerful, uninhibited performance, especially in duets with the older Ms. Roscioli and, to my ears, both have the same quality of voice. The other actors and ensemble were able to express multiple characterizations as they alternated between roles. Michael Liscio played four very different roles in the show and had the daunting task of being an unsympathetic figure in all of them. Kristin Nemecek as Helen and DeAngelo Kearns as Uncle Louie/Richy brought warmth to their characters and gave Genyusha/Golda the comfort she so desperately craved.
The small space was used effectively with projected graphics on the wall to highlight the era. The set design by Cheyenne Sykes and Alex Peterson was minimal, yet conveyed a dark atmosphere. The ensemble was choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter and Liz Ramos to reflect the time frame but also seemed to be a kind of Greek Chorus. Daniel A. Weiss arranged the music to compliment the action with some old favorites like “I Ain’t got Nobody” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do.” The band consisted of piano, guitar and drums with a nice full-bodied sound.
As the book writer and director, Chris Henry kept the action moving in a seamless way. The material never seemed to get bogged down by clichés and by having Ms. Dideriksen in constant view singing Genya Ravan’s songs it helped to emphasize her struggles and determination to rise up. The songs “Pedal to the Medal” and “Shot in the Heart” allowed Ms. Dideriksen to wail with some impressive technique, including a full high belt.
I truly hope Rock and Roll Refugee will have another life after this limited run. The source material is quite moving with room for more expansion. I am inspired to read Genya Ravan’s biography Lollipop Lounge after seeing this show, for Ms. Ravan’s inner strength and perseverance lingered in my mind long after the lights went down.
Rock and Roll Refugee. Through February 14 at the Royal Family Arts Center (145 West 46th St., 3rd floor., between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). www.royalfamilyproductions.org
*Photos: Russ Rowland