Gone Too Soon

There is a mighty group of musical artists forever linked because of one strange coincidence — they all died at the young age of 27. While their time on this earth was short, their artistry created such a musical impact it continues long after their passing. From Robert Johnson to Amy Winehouse, their contributions to the musical landscape deserve to be more than a footnote on a page in history.
The idea materialized — because of this unique coincidence — these artists became members of what music lovers deemed the “27 Club.” While it’s a club in which no one wants to be a member, it served as the inspiration for a show of the same name, created to shine a light on the artists and the music they left behind.
While this particular show pays tribute to the artists’ music, it isn’t a tribute show in the traditional sense. This “27 Club” show coming to the Riverside Resort, is more about blending theater and music rather than that formulaic parade of one look-and-sound alike after another performing a segment before another one takes the stage for yet another portrayal.
This time, things will be different, the producer has taken his tribute show in another direction entirely, and now he brings it to Don’s Celebrity Theater for the first time. For one thing, he puts the music in the hands of musicians who know what they’re doing, seasoned veterans who know their way around guitar chords and demanding vocal ability. It wasn’t about finding someone who looks the part, but musicians who bring every nuance to the forefront.
“It is just unique — just the concept of it, and if you just see a poster of the show, you might look at it and wonder. It could be slightly confusing and you’d be like, ‘What is this?'” said Kenneth Rexrode, show producer and writer with the Six String Society, his troupe of musical performers and actors.
“We have different versions of the show and for this ’27 Club’ we’re doing out there, it’s something I wrote two or three years ago. I started the Six String Society three almost four years ago in San Diego. It’s partly theater and it’s set in a living room.
“The story goes, ‘well, was there ever a time when any of these people were ever together?’ I was like, ‘mythically in 1969, two weeks before Woodstock, in a little-known folk singer’s apartment, there was this after-hours party and then these people start to come in.’
“The apartment belongs to husband and wife, ‘Nick (Afka Thomas) and Sarah (Ann Masse),’ a couple of my actors who are incredible, and the premise is, it’s their apartment,” Rexrode explained. “Then there’s a Jimi and an Amy who make an appearance. In a normal show, like we do at the Belly Up and other places, our show is like two hours and 15 minutes, but in a casino showroom, they want us to only do 90 minutes, and that’s one of our biggest challenges.”
The music will be front and center, even if there isn’t a traditional “character” in a role performing it. While there’s no getting around the ever-present common denominator, the show is anything but sad and morbid.
“The show is really fun, it’s not dark,” Rexrode said. “We start with Robert Johnson, we have this guy playing the music of Robert Johnson. The stage is dimly lit with only one light and he’s in a rocking chair playing country blues. People don’t know why we start with him. Well, he was the first member of the 27 Club.
“We start with that, which people don’t expect, then we tell Robert Johnson’s story, then it cuts to the second scene, then we’re in the living room,” he added. “So it’s a lot of fun and people love this show. We’ve done it at the Belly Up and we did it up at a big event called “Concert in the Rocks” in Lone Pine to do their annual thing in Alabama Hills and we’ve sold it out every time we’ve done it.
“The idea is we take people on a journey with this show, it doesn’t feel like a bunch of dudes up there,” he added. “People ask, ‘Is it a tribute show?’ It’s hard to say no because the music is, but it doesn’t feel like a tribute show at all. The whole stage is set differently to create a different atmosphere. There are Tiffany lamps and couches and coffee tables. The stage is cool and it’s gonna look great.”
He said the show has slowly evolved into the current production.
“The first time I had this dream for the show, I started out a little more guitar-centric, and it’s called the Six String Society. It was jazz guitarists and I was like, ‘hey, tell your stories playing music, a who-inspired-you like of thing and then there was another guy who did rock and roll and another guy who did rockabilly. When we did a first show, I was disappointed with low attendance, but the club manager thought it was awesome and encouraged me to keep going.
“Honestly, it took me three months of reflection,” he said. “I believed in the whole concept…the first show wasn’t the living room, but it was always something I wanted to incorporate. I love theater, so I wanted to do something unique, I guess the challenge for me was people have never really seen anything quite like this. That’s good, so I built it like it was for a performing arts center, for the theater people, but everyone likes music, too. And if you’re a season ticket holder at a performing arts center, you see a mixture of different things, but at the end of the day, it’s a lot of great music.
“We’ve had a lot of success and I can’t say we’ve had huge obstacles,” he said. “We’ve had success in San Diego and other places in California, the goal is to share this with the world. Frankly, these shows at the Riverside, they’re a big deal for the show.”
Some of the cast members for this show include Robin Henkel playing the music of Robert Johnson, Casey Hensley tackling the vocals of Janis Joplin, Whitney Shay performing the vocals of Amy Winehouse, with Anthony Cullins performing the music of Jimi Hendrix. Musicians include blues guitarist Laura Chavez, Veronica May, Jody Bagley, Evan Caleb Yearsley, Mark Campbell, Jonny Viau and George Matorian.
“We have a guy bringing his B3 Hammond organ so we may do a little medley of The Doors,” Rexrode said. “Laura Chavez is a very well-known blues guitarist and she travels all over the world with Nikki Hill, and she also plays with Casey Hemsley. She’s a frickin’ superstar. She’s 25 and she’s played all over. Whitney Shay, the gal who does Amy Winehouse, she is a two-time winner of Blues Performer of the Year. She and Casey are two of the best performers in San Diego.
“The young kid that’s doing Jimi Hendrix is Anthony Cullins and Robin Hinkel, who is the Robert Johnson…his album just won Best Blues Album. Veronica May is going to do one of Kurt Cobain’s songs, and she’s playing guitar for the Amy Winehouse stuff. We kind of weave all that into the dialogue, and it’s cool how we do that.”
Rexrode said the show is more like a celebration of their music.
“There’s some funny interplay in the dialogue and it’s not dark at all,” he said. “But the title is pretty dark, but that’s part of the fun, like the catch-phrase I’m using now,…’it’s to die for.’ Some people have said, ‘That makes me slightly uncomfortable.’ I’m like, ‘if it makes you feel something, that’s probably a good thing. If it makes you feel good or uncomfortable. But if something is to die for, you think of something that’s good, right?
“The show is not the same show night after night,” he added. “We keep it fresh for the musicians, and honestly some of the major classics they cover, say like on Hendrix, they add a different wrinkle each night and people will really dig it if they’re really into music.
“Of course I want to shine a light on all the artists in the show and they’re all excited to be bringing this show out to Laughlin. We’ve all done some great things together and this is a good opportunity for us to be out there and spread the word.”


27 Club

Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside

Wednesday-Sunday, April 11-15 (8 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets