"Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera" is propelled by the same fuel that powered the career of its motorcycle daredevil namesake: pure adrenaline.
From its opening power chords, composer-creator Jef Bek's epic musical, currently at the Bootleg Theater, never loses thrust as it nails the churning sensibilities -- musical and cultural -- of the 1970s, when Knievel's death-defying exploits captured the world's imagination.
The rock genre is a perfect fit for Knievel, an iconic rebel with "the guts to follow his heart" even when it led him into foolhardy peril. In the title role, Chuck DiMaria sports the lanky, weather-beaten look of a hard-luck survivor, with a defiant delivery reminiscent of Queen's Freddie Mercury, especially in the upper registers, as he careens from triumphs to hospital recoveries. As Knievel's long-suffering wife, Linda Traci Dinwiddie has the pipes and chops to supply the lyrical and dramatic counterpoint.
In true operatic form, Bek's score is nonstop and entirely sung. A stylistic homage, it weaves recognizable strains of Led Zeppelin, the Who, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd and classic bands of the era in a suitably high-decibel, hard-driving mix, performed live by Bek on drums and his trio of virtuoso rockers.
The result, however, is neither derivative nor arbitrary -- the varied styles are artfully sculpted to the kaleidoscopic biographical sketches. Exhilarating elegies to life on the open road modulate with touching duets between DiMaria and Dinwiddie exploring the physical and emotional costs of Knievel's chosen path.
Shrewd musical change-ups abound: An interview with a soul-singing reporter (Amani Starnes) begins with funk guitar wah-wahs and transitions into a gospel chorus of fans. A kitschy early rock 'n' roll incarnation of Father Time (Kyle Nudo) taunts Knievel with his own mortality.
The time Bek spent in fringe theater (including collaborations with L.A.'s Zoo District) has paid off in the inventive ways that he and director, "Bat Boy" co-creator Keythe Farley, have found to stage grand special effects on a shoestring budget. Their depiction of Knievel's jumps is a low-tech triumph. Extensive use of integrated video includes home movie footage supplied by Knievel, who lent his approval to the project.
The piece doesn't gloss over the hard edges of Knievel's life -- youthful petty crimes, carousing and womanizing as his fame grew, and the ugly 1977 assault that landed him in prison. Nor does it idolize Knievel as a profound philosopher. His struggle to rise from his injuries and demons is inarticulate and visceral.
Yet in Knievel's determination to ride again after each setback, Bek finds something unconquerable to celebrate in the American spirit. Hopefully, in the bigger future productions this gem richly deserves, it won't lose its elemental, rockin' heart.
'Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera'
Where: Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Oct. 28
Price: $25 to $30
Contact: (213) 389-3856 or www.bootlegtheater.com
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes