nytheatre.com review by Kim Wadsworth
September 26, 2007
These days, many new musicals seem to follow one of two paths—either they are rock and pop extravaganzas like Rent or Spring Awakening, or they tweak the nose of conventions and poke ironic fun at the genre, the way Urinetown and Avenue Q do. Roller Derby, by John Braden, Barry Arnold, and Harold Wheeler, follows neither path—in its tone and score, it hearkens back to earlier conventions of musical theater.
This doesn't necessarily work in its favor.
The show is set against the roller derby craze of the late 60s and early 70s, charting the rise of Joy, an eager new member of the Bombers derby team; Joy (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer) wants nothing more than a chance to prove her worth and win the crown away from the acerbic Marge (Sylvia Roldan Dohi), Bombers team captain and Queen of the Derby. The team manager, Jim (Eric Michael Gillett)—who really wants only to retire from the road and marry Marge—decides to capitalize on their rivalry, subtly encouraging the two into competing in a one-on-one race for the crown. After a month's buildup, the race is run—and a last-minute injury for Marge grants Joy the victory, but loses her the sympathy of her team members, and the love of the male Bombers captain Ron (Eric William Morris). Will Joy stay with the Bombers? Will she break out of her shell and truly become part of the team? You'll probably be able to guess.
The cast commits themselves a thousand percent to their performances, nailing all the songs, the choreography and the skating (there's a lot). Absolutely nothing swayed them from their performances—even onstage accidents; Nacer accidentally knocked Gillett over with an overly-enthusiastic hug in one scene, but Nacer didn't miss a beat, coming right in with her next cue seconds later. Even a cameo by comedienne Lea DeLaria fits well into the ensemble; DeLaria appears as the captain of the rival Demons team in one scene, and has her own solo number. DeLaria worked in a few standup-inspired ad libs through her scene, but even her biggest zinger never overshadowed the show as a whole. The ensemble truly is an ensemble.
But the cast and choreography could have been supported by a less conventional script and score. Joy's characterization is reduced to her simply being "the plucky, tough newcomer," singing three whole ballads about how she only can rely on herself; Marge is a harridan in one locker-room scene, but then fades to simply berating Joy for her uppity nature; and Ron does little but sing plaintively about how Joy could win the match but lose herself. As for the score, I had hoped it would resemble the early 70s rock I heard as house music—songs like Bowie's "Suffragette City" and Foghat's "Slow Ride"—but the composer has opted for a traditional Broadway score with comic songs for supporting characters, dramatic solos for the leads and inspirational ensemble numbers. Not that the score is unlikable; it's just something I've heard several times before. Director and choreographer Donald McKayle does play with convention in one of the lovelorn Ron's numbers lamenting the loss of Joy; as he sings, the rest of the male chorus gradually joins him as a mugging backup group. Ron joins in the fun, and what could have been yet another pop-song ballad becomes a bit of fun for its own sake. But this is the one exception in an evening that feels very familiar in its approach.
Mind, Roller Derby is entertaining. But at the end of the day, it is only that—a pleasant little something that maybe you hum a tune from as you leave the theater, but by the time you get home, you've started forgetting or started confusing it with other shows you've seen before, making the show as fleeting as the roller derby craze itself.