BALTIMORE — Release the Grundle? Oh, no, no, NO! Well, wait. Okay, new thought: Do, do, DO release the Grundle, that bellicosely fleshy rocker-monster who uses an extra set of arms to play drums and looks like The Hulk after he’s gone off his diet.
After all, if you don’t release the Grundle, then Benedon — the heroic boy-lead guitarist of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s silly, inspired, unruly, overindulgent, profane, puckish and often delightful “Gründlehämmer” — can’t
battle-of-the-bands with him to the death with his super-tricked-out guitar. Which is, of course, the weapon of choice in Brotopia, the demented medieval kingdom where the combatants cloak themselves not in armor but in heavy metal.
Informed as much by the ambiance of a Kiss or Guns N’ Roses concert as by the more sedate conventions of musical theater, the irreverent “Gründlehämmer” sometimes feels as if it’s been devised strictly for a crowd that has come to par-tay. (Your hand is stamped at the door, and beer is available for purchase throughout the show.) And yet there’s both a seriousness of intent and abundant appreciation for the form apparent in the work of The BROS, as the troupe calls itself. These are qualities that Washington audiences can sample this weekend, when for the first time the group comes to the D.C. area, for three performances at Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory.
“Gründlehämmer” was The BROS’ debut show five years ago after the company’s founding by friends who met at Goucher College: Aran Keating, Dylan Koehler, John DeCampos, Jared Margulies and Eli Breitburg-Smith. The production, directed by Keating, with songs by all five men, has been remounted for this abbreviated tour, which will take The BROS to Washington and the following weekend to Philadelphia.
On the basis of “Gründlehämmer” — which I saw last week at Baltimore’s 2640 Space, in a church on St. Paul Street — you see why The BROS are seeking to test the broader geographic appeal of their raucous aesthetic.
The place was filled with people in their 20s and 30s, a demographic so underrepresented in the nation’s playhouses that theaters have to radically slash ticket prices just to entice a hardy few in the doors. (BROS tickets are $20.)
The company fosters an atmosphere that is the antithesis of intimidating: You can wander in and out without too much worry about losing your place in the story. Shouting during a favorite moment is hardly a breach of etiquette. And if you’re moved (or you pretend to be moved) by a power ballad, the rhythmic waving of a hand clutching a lighter is not out of place.
Sometimes the approach verges on aggravating: The scene changes involving Joe Martin’s witty sets, of intentionally slapdash design, take an eternity in conventional theater terms. The lights go down, and while the eight-member band vamps tentatively, you sit there, thinking about, well, whatever. The staging, too, is often of a let’s-just-line-up-and-start-singing caliber, and the dialogue scenes are often twice as long as they need to be.
But there’s a clever conceit in the show for every clunky moment, and in the end, the extended adolescent cheekiness and exuberance of the enterprise earn a hearty respect. At the intersection of hard rock and “Game of Thrones,” “Gründlehämmer” doesn’t so much send up both as honor their fans’ intense affection for them. It’s hard not to fall, for instance, for a show that takes the nickname for electric guitar — “axes” — so literally, and comes up, via some fabulous props, with hilarious-looking instrumental weaponry for all of its major characters.
(I would tell you who precisely was responsible, but the voluminous program for “Gründlehämmer” lists pages and pages of contributors, who are given such exotic titles as Royal Forge Department Leader, Armory Department Leader and — my favorite — Minister of Meats.)
Equally splendid are several utterly superfluous interludes of shadow puppetry, credited to Greg Bowen, Douglas Johnson and Devon Martin, that culminate in the bluest parade of phallic symbols this side of a symposium on Freudian dream analysis.
As for plot: Well, there’s a lot of it, having to do with young orphaned Benedon (the excellent Christopher Krysztofiak) being the rightful heir to the throne of Brotopia, which has been usurped by the evil Lothario (Bowen), a blond barbarian who seems to owe his leadership style less to Attila the Hun than to Marilyn Manson.
It is the job of upstanding spiritual guide Halvor, played with appealing brio by Danielle Robinette, to school Benedon in the fine art of handling the most powerful axe in the kingdom, the Gründlehämmer, and — for reasons that get a little bit lost in the delirious proceedings — in killing the green-skinned Grundle (Nairobi Collins). (What threat is posed by a creature with five times the girth of Jabba the Hutt will await the investigation of more seasoned BROS-ologists.)
Whenever the band cranks up with The BROS’ infectious songbook of power anthems and power ballads, you’re reminded that rocking out is the most potent weapon in all of Brotopia, and one that provides “Gründlehämmer” with its enjoyably electric kick.
Script, music and lyrics by the Baltimore Rock Opera Society. Directed by Aran Keating. Sets, Joe Martin; props, Anna Platis; creatures and puppets, John Marra; lighting, Chris Allen; fight choreography, Sarah “Flash” Gorman; costumes, Taylor Carlton and Eliza Vlasova; music director, John DeCampos; choreography, Judy Kurjan. With Moira Goldie Horowitz, Derek Vaughan Brown. About three hours. March 28-30 at Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria. Tickets, $20. Visit www.baltimorerockopera.org.