For those ready to rock… | Wesley Ellul

We speak to theatre director and producer Wesley Ellul about his upcoming production – a Maltese version of the celebrated Broadway musical Rock of Ages – which, as Ellul recounts, took a long and arduous path before finally reaching our shores 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
14 June 2016, 8:00am
Kurt Calleja and Nadia Vella • Photo by Franco Rizzo
Kurt Calleja and Nadia Vella • Photo by Franco Rizzo
What led you to choose this show as your next production?

Well to tell the truth behind this I need to tell you two stories. The first being the story behind Rock of Ages and the second the story behind our vision. Let’s start with the Rock of Ages one… which is more straightforward.
The Rock of Ages dream started five years ago on March 20. I was on honeymoon with my wife in NYC and I’d heard about this Musical-meets-rock-concert called Rock of Ages. Basically, it billed itself as an insanely fun night out. I said why not... and in fact was the only show I booked in advance! I’d heard the soundtrack about a year or so before, and was excited to see the show.
Little could have prepared me for the awesomeness I was about to witness on stage before me! I sat in the theatre for two hours just buzzing at the high energy show which was not only amazing musically but hilariously funny!
From that night, I made it my mission to produce this show in Malta! I started the chase to get the contacts I needed to get the rights for the show. After chasing for a few months on Facebook and over the phone, I got in touch with Chris D’Arienzo, the writer of Rock of Ages and later the main producer of the show, Matthew Weaver.  We got to talking and he was all excited to have the show run in Malta, but he told me I’d have to wait... because there was a major film in the works. I thought to myself, “bummer”.
In the meantime I waited, and watched the show another two times, in London. I thought before each viewing that I surely couldn’t enjoy it as much as I did the time before. But each time I found that the show was even more amazing!
Fast forward a few years... and I got in touch with Matt again, who let me know the rights would be soon available, and got to the front of the list! This was literally the longest I have ever had to wait to get a show on stage.
Our vision is the second reason why we chose this show. Over the past three years, [fellow director and producer] Marc Cabourdin and myself have been working towards creating a financially sustainable performing arts scene. We knew if we put together a great show and managed to sustain it for a long period (at least three months) this would be the beginning of a change in how people look at performing arts in Malta.
Rock of Ages was the perfect catalyst for this. As this show brings the world of popular rock music, with bands like Bon Jovi, Styx, Whitesnake, Journey and more together with a theatrical performance which is funny and touching, allowing us to merge two audiences together. Mix in the tourism market, and you have the making of a proper sustainable model where by a show can run for months on end.
Having been rehearsing now for over a month and a half, we now know we have an amazing show and all is left is to get the audiences inside to experience it.

Why do you think Rock of Ages will have an impact on Maltese audiences?

First off, the music. It is outstanding. Ethan Popp and Chris D’Arenzio did an excellent job in choosing and mashing up these tracks we all know and love, and giving a 2000s edge to them which still gives us nostalgia but without losing the energy we need to rock to!

 

Secondly, the production levels are high – we’ve worked with the cream of all Malta’s creatives to put this show: Renzo Spiteri as Musical Director, Choreographer Sue Vassallo, Roger Tirazona as Choir Master, plus Ismael Portelli on Light and Video Design, and Elyse Tonna and Maria Sammut designing the set!  This is surely going to be a treat for all the senses!

Are you trying to inject some Maltese flavour into this popular production? How so?

The Maltese flavour we have in this one is simple – an amazing cast of Malta’s best singers, actors and dancers. I can honestly say that I have never seen a more talented cast from so many different fields assembled. First off, we have two of Malta’s best know male singers: our pop-dance crooner Kurt Calleja and Airport Impressions rock star Errol Sammut. Next we have Malta two top musical theatre actresses in Nadia Vella and Rachel Fabri. Beyond this we have TV superstar Taryn Mamo Cefai, Chris Dingli and Colin Fitz of Xfm and Comedy Knights fame plus London Trained actor Steffan Cherriet Busuttil rounding out the lead roles, with supporting cast including dance bad boy Warren Bonello and all-rounder Emmanuel Tabone.
In this cast, there are no fewer then eight London-trained actor/singer/dancers  who have all worked the professional circuit in the UK – but have come back to Malta to ply their trade for local audiences.
Also the show has a special Maltese flavour to it in itself… but we’ll let you discover that during the show itself!

Could you tell us something about the format of the show? Why did you go for this kind of approach?

Well, Rock of Ages is Musical-meets-rock-concert meets hilarious comedy! As the Time Out New York puts it, “rock and comedy in perfect proportion”. It is really the most fun you can have on a night out with your clothes on. Following a storyline set in the infamous – and real, I might add – Burbon Room in LA, it follows the story of a small town girl who comes to fulfill her dreams of being an actress, and a boy from Detroit who wants to be a Rock star, all the while an evil developer wants to drop this establishment to build a luxury apartments (sound familiar?).

The show requires an ensemble cast with great dramatic range: having to both sing and act. Did you find the Maltese scene amenable for this, and what was your selection process like?

One thing that tends to happen is we like to make due with what we find. We don’t strive for the best, we work with who shows up. Our vision of how we’d like to see the arts move forward in Malta is not compatible with that. We want to see shows produced here which are world-class and that can only be done by searching for the best.
In fact we held auditions in Malta and had a casting call in the UK to build the cast we have today. But we were amazed at the local talent who came forward for this show. In some cases we need to speak to some people to come in – mainly because they never would have even thought of doming something like this – but to their surprise they were amazing at it and are loving every moment of it! Beyond this, we had to cast top musicians who not only have to learn how to play the music, but needed to take on the live performances: Marc Galea, Simon Sammut, Simon Fenech, Jonathan Ellul and Renzo Spiteri himself will be rocking audiences inside out!

Rock of Ages will debut at City Theatre, Valletta from June 29. Tickets are available from www.ticketline.com.mt

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...