A sure way to annoy Paul Frizler these days is to equate Chapman College's "Roots of Rock and Roll" with any of those glitzy, impersonator-filled tributes to entertainment legends that keep popping up in Las Vegas casinos.
Frizler, the co-writer and director of the show that opens tonight, doesn't think much of those Vegas extravaganzas.
"No, I can't say I like them at all," he said, knowing that comparisons are inevitable. "They're cornball, absolutely, and they don't have much humor. And they always are only about dead people. I don't like that either. . . . We want to celebrate the ones that are living, too.
"We try to do that but also have some fun. Where the Las Vegas (shows are reverential) we engage in a lot of parody to try to keep things light."
The tones may be different, but what the Chapman show and Las Vegas have in common is the notion that audiences are happy to watch other people impersonate their favorite musical stars. But in contrast to Las Vegas, where only a handful of "legends" including Elvis, Hank Williams Jr. and Marilyn Monroe (how did she get in there?) are spotlighted, the scope at Chapman is broader.
Frizler, a Chapman College English professor who wrote the program with another instructor, Ron Thronson, can't be accused of lacking ambition. "Roots" spans almost 80 years of American music, ranging from ragtime to the early country twangs of Jimmie Rodgers to swing to Elvis and up to the Africa-inspired melodies of Paul Simon's "Graceland" album. It's all jammed into a three-hour program with a 100-person cast and dozens of scene changes.
"We put a lot in here; there's no doubt about that, but I wanted it to be instructive as well as entertaining, so all of it's necessary," he said. "Besides individual performers, we show musical styles and themes. We've even got parts that touch on rock videos, 'dirty dancing' (inspired by the popular movie "Dirty Dancing") and humorous numbers (like one featuring) Tiny Tim."
Besides Tim and Elvis, the impersonations include Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, the Andrews Sisters, Tina Turner, Paul Simon, Bette Midler (and her Harlets), Whitney Houston, Elton John and such groups of the '50s as the Robins and the Clovers. All the performers do their own singing, accompanied by a band.
Frizler said Chapman began auditions in October to find the right people for each role. Most of the cast members are Chapman students or veterans of past shows (Frizler staged his first rock history musical for the college in the early '70s).
To win a part, Frizler looks for actors who not only sound something like the star but also have at least a vague likeness, which, through makeup and costuming, can be enhanced. Finding the right match can be easy (Frizler had little trouble finding a Whitney Houston clone), but he has also faced difficulties.
He was eager to have Ritchie Valens and Little Richard replicas but couldn't come up with "the correct look or style" in any of the tryouts. (He found a good Little Richard voice a few years ago, but the singer was white. So out came the makeup kit.) This year, Frizler decided to edit the characters out of "Roots" instead of filling the roles with actors who didn't quite meet his standards.
"The audience would be disappointed if the stars aren't right, so that's really the only way to approach it," he said. "I had some bad luck this time but also some good luck. I usually come up with a good Little Richard but no Chuck Berry. This time I found a good Chuck Berry but no Little Richard . . . at least I've got a Chuck."
The performer's preparation involves several rehearsals and demanding individual work. Frizler said the actors are expected to know a star's history as well as study videotapes and other footage to learn mannerisms and signature styles.
Vocal patterns are dissected through repeated listening sessions. Then props are added--Elton John's outlandish costumes, for example--to help create the image.
"They've got to be able to show the way they move, the way they look, even the way they shake their heads to achieve the right feeling," Frizler said. "Sometimes it's difficult, and I find them (the actors) slipping out of the star's mode and into their own thing. That's a danger, but that's also why I'm there, to make sure they keep working at it."
Music may be the message in "Roots of Rock and Roll," but it's more the medium in "Letting Go," an original "rock opera" opening tonight at the Finally a Unicorn Emporium in Huntington Beach.
Michael Aguila, the show's producer, said the musical by Orange County writer Carl Fred Freberg centers on a boy growing to manhood and his conflict with an overbearing father.
The boy's travails are set to a rock score that will be played by the five-member Mushroomland band and backed by a small choral group.
"The main character grows up from 8 to 25 and meets some interesting characters along the way. This is a coming-of-age type of show in a fable-like setting," said Aquila, who described "Letting Go" as family entertainment.
Tonight through March 12 (Fridays and Saturdays), 8:30 p.m.
Finally a Unicorn Emporium, 214 Main St., Huntington Beach
Information: (714) 969-1794
'ROOTS OF ROCK AND ROLL'
Tonight, Saturday and Sunday and Feb. 25, 26 and 27, 8 p.m.
Chapman College Auditorium, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange
$5 to $10
Information: (714) 997-6812