Rolling Thunder Vietnam
QPAC, Concert Hall
April 21 – 22
It can sometimes be difficult to energise a matinee audience. However, from the moment that Christian Charisiou springs onto stage with Steppenwolf’s ‘Magic Carpet Ride’, the rock drama “Rolling Thunder Vietnam” does exactly this, thanks to the exceptional musicianship of its tight band, as much as is stellar vocalists.
The psych-influenced hard rock, heavy bass and funky beat song is the perfect opener to give the audience a taste of the talent to come from members of the legendary John Farnham band (Angus Burchall on drums, Brett Garsed on guitar, Craig Newman on bass, Joe Petrolo on keyboards and James Ryan on guitar). Garsed is especially memorable throughout the show, no more so than in an arresting ‘Black Magic Woman’ evocation of the enticement of Vietnamese bars.
As suggested by its title, the show centres around the turbulent time of the world’s first televised war, showcasing the music and stories that shaped a generation. Writer Bryce Hallett’s story, developed from interviews and conversations with many veterans, and actual letters, is of three albeit archetypal Australians and one American. Whereas Andy (Charisiou) has been conscripted via the birthday ballot, happy-go-lucky Johnny (original cast member Tom Oliver) has enlisted to have an adventure and see a bit of the world rather than work on the family war in Warwick, leaving behind his faithful sweetheart Sarah (Brittanie Shipway). And then there is Johnny’s friend Thomas (Jerrod Smith) who was an exchange student in Australia before becoming a US Marine.
This is a unique show, a decade in the making. While it feels very much like a concert, it is one that comes with distinct narrative threads. There is limited dramatic interaction between cast members, with their dialogue directed, instead, only to the audience. And Director David Berthold easily connects Bryce’s stories and musical director Chong Lim arrangements of cleverly chosen songs of the era, weaving them into the drama of the four principal characters’ stories. Joe Cocker’s ‘The Letter’ concludes a segment of share of homesick letters to loves back home, full of missing, memories and foreshadowed longing for future dreams to be realised as the soldiers promise to be home soon.
It is refreshing to have the story focussed so firmly on experience from an Australian perspective. Similarly, it is an appreciated touch to have iconic American anti-war songs such as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’ sitting alongside Australian numbers like John Young’s ‘The Real Thing’ and a lively ‘Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy’, which serves as an early highlight as a crisp-sounding Oliver has the audience clapping along.
After Act One ends with reminder of the realities of the horrors of war, the social scene of protest become a more prominent theme after interval as Sarah begins to embrace the anti-war sentiment. Act Two provides some powerful moments as, for example, Smith leads a mighty ‘War’, full of striking visuals in contrast to the coming more serene numbers of ‘What’s Going On’ and also ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, which is beautifully sung by a quietly-assured Oliver.
The talented primary cast is well-supported by artists Imogen Moore and Sam Richardson. Smith’s voice is particularly textured in lead of many belting rock numbers and the male voices harmonise especially well in a pumping ‘Born to be Wild’ signpost of changing aggression and increasing question of the war’s worth. It is Shipway, however, who carries most of the show’s emotional weight. Her ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ is a soaring conclusion to Act One and in the later poignant and particularly gripping ‘Killing Me Softly’, she holds audience in the palm of her hand.
The provision of light and shade serve the show’s uniqueness, reminding us that for all of its commanding rock show feel, that it is also stemming from real stories. Video images (screen and lighting design by Toby Harding) across four screens shows archival footage of war ships heading from Australia, of life in ‘The Dat’ military base that becomes the soldiers’ temporary home and the small town life on the land that Johnny has left behind, and while there are some distracting technical issues in Act One, these are soon sorted. Archival audio and video, similarly, reinforces the complex, changing political climate of the time, in emphasis of Sarah’s letters from home about the societal attitudes and experience of families on the home front.
Much as it is about the music, “Rolling Thunder Vietnam” is also about the ravages and causalities of war. The theatrical concert is thoughtful, but also an uplifting, entertaining magic ride through the music and politics of a distinctive time in history, that, thanks of the immense talent of its cast and creatives, continues to roll along almost ten years after its world premiere at QPAC in 2014. When a late show share of The Animals’ anthemic ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ enlivens us towards the show’s conclusion, it is met with calls of “do it again”. Luckily there is an encore of numbers to get audience members on their feet before post-show rave about how welcome its return Australian tour is.