London Rocks debuts at Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Written by Russell Meyer
For two decades, the Globe Theater near the main entrance to Busch Gardens Williamsburg was home to 4-D movies. From Haunts of the Olde Country, to Pirates 4-D, to RL Stine’s Haunted Lighthouse, to Sesame Street Presents Lights, Camera, Imagination 4-D, the theater has been home to some sort of interactive movie attraction for the past 20 years. Those movies all took advantage of vibrating seats and other special effects that brought the audience into the story.Tweet
In 2014, Busch Gardens Williamsburg has chosen to change course in the Globe Theater, and after years of trying different movies with varying levels of effect, the park has gone back to the theater’s roots by creating a live stage show for the Globe. The show represents the park’s fourth regularly operating live show, and in a way brings back the style of show that was lost when the Canadian Palladium Theater in New France closed nearly three years ago — it now houses Le Catapult, a Scrambler moved to make room for Mach Tower. As a Busch Gardens Ambassador Blogger and Theme Park Insider contributor, I was invited to an exclusive technical rehearsal for Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s newest stage spectacular, London Rocks. The Busch Gardens Ambassador Blogger program provides me exclusive access to media events in exchange for free admission and other perks in 2014; however, all opinions presented on Theme Park Insider are my own.
London Rocks represents nearly five years of creative effort and planning by the park to bring live performance back to the double-scale replica of William Shakespeare’s famous auditorium. However, putting a live, Broadway-caliber stage show onto a stage that was only designed for movies and small stage presentations represents an elaborate effort. An extensive renovation of the Globe Theater was necessary to create a full theatrical backstage complete with costuming areas, dressing rooms for two separate casts, prop storage, and a cast lounge. While the audience’s seating area and lobby remains relatively unchanged, everything from the front of the stage back is virtually brand new. Even the stage itself underwent a complete renovation to feature a sloped performance platform that allows the entire auditorium to see all of the performers, even actors in the back.
What the new backstage space means is that the park can employ two casts to present London Rocks up to eight times every day, and bring elite-level talent to guests of the Williamsburg park. Similar to what Busch Gardens Tampa did with Katonga (and to a lesser extent Madagascar Live: Operation Vacation), and what Disney has done with its Broadway-style theme park shows such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Finding Nemo the Musical, and Festival of the Lion King, London Rocks is an effort to bring a bit of the West End and Broadway to the theme park guest. In fact, much of the cast of London Rocks is based in New York City, most with musical theater backgrounds, with crew and creative staff boasting credits including Spring Awakening and many more. The creative talent Busch Gardens has brought into the fold is about as good as it gets.
With an eclectic mix of classic British songs, London Rocks chronicles some of the greatest music of all time. Featuring tunes from the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Queen, David Bowie, and many more, the show is not short on recognizable music. However, the mash-up of songs may be a little strange or sound awkward at first to some, including me. Part of the strangeness may be due to the cast still learning the libretto, but some of the uncomfortableness of the score may become less so with repeated viewings. The songs in the show were selected by the creative staff in a roundtable format. Licensing of the songs obviously restricted some of the music available, but the team was able to find songs to fit the story they wanted to tell.
The show is essentially a “jukebox” musical, a newer style of musical that features existing songs fit together loosely to tell a general story, similar to Mamma Mia, Rock of Ages, and We Will Rock You. London Rocks uses the lyrics of the chosen songs to follow a young girl growing up in England during the 1960's and through the 1970's. The decision to build a show around the British Invasion arose when the creative team took stock of the existing shows in the park. With an Irish Dancing Show, fantasy show, and a big band/pop music show, the concept of London Rocks is both complementary to and distinctive from the park’s other offerings.
What really sets this show apart from other musical revues is the projection technology. High-tech digital projectors with 110,000 lumens of power blast more than 54,000 individual animation cells onto background screens and sets to tell the story with a style that is unique and visually stunning. Animators spent many hundreds of hours developing the animation sequences for the show. I was mesmerized by the imagery, so much so that I found myself focusing on the projections more than the performers in front. The imagery is not quite perfect with some projectors slightly out of sync and focus during the technical rehearsal, but I would presume that the few subtle glitches will be worked out before the show’s official public debut on Memorial Day weekend. The amazing projections allow for easy transitions between acts, and only minimal set pieces needed to establish the scene.
While the sets are relatively minimal, the costumes are anything but. The outfits start relatively simple, but go from trippy — including giant bowler hats, enormous lips, and camera masks — to elaborate, including a walrus and octopus outfit. The show even draws a little bit from Avenue Q with a very neat puppet sequence that younger guests will love. The enhanced backstage areas were absolutely necessary to pull of many of the costume changes in the show, and it’s clear that the costume department went all-out to give a full blown, professional musical theater experience. To add a bit more to the experience, Busch Gardens repurposed the existing 4-D effects of the seats to add vibrations, audio, water and air effects as an enhancement to what is happening on stage.
Though not yet perfected, Busch Gardens Williamsburg might have a solid new offering for guests this summer with London Rocks. An energetic, talented cast along with amazing technical feats and costuming make London Rocks a top notch Broadway-style live theme park show. While the mix and blending of songs is a bit awkward at times, mind-blowing projected animation combined with songs the audience will know is likely to encourage repeated viewings. This show continues the trend of improving the quality of live performance in theme parks, and should continue to entertain audiences for years to come.
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