When Roanoke musician and restaurateur JP Powell decided he wanted to do something different with his music, he did not pussyfoot around.
Powell, a singer, keyboardist and guitarist who fronts pop/rock band My Radio, is presenting “Maltease.” It’s a karaoke, sci-fi, rock-opera odyssey inspired by “La Boheme,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Frank Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage,” quantum physics, 1980s synth-pop, Electric Light Orchestra and the costume rock of such bands as GWAR.
He debuts the show on Thursday, at Jefferson Center’s Fostek Hall.
“This could be a one-and-done kind of deal,” Powell said in an interview last month. “As I’ve told people, it’s going to be a spectacular success or an epic failure. Either way, it’s going to be entertaining.”
It started with a visit to Roanoke from Powell’s longtime friend, ex-bandmate and sometime producer, Bleu McAuley. The Los Angeles-based writer and producer — with a diversity of credits including Meat Loaf and Demi Lovato — and Powell were scheming up some ideas for new music that would be different from what Powell does with My Radio.
The result was the EP “Maltease Vol. 1,” which included My Radio members Hunter Johnson on drums, and guitarists Jake Zuckerman and Brett Lemon, but with lots of synthesizer work that nodded to groups including Eurythmics and The Cars. In the ELO-inspired twist, they added strings from a quartet of Roanoke Symphony Orchestra musicians that included Powell’s wife, violinist Shaleen Powell.
JP Powell was in the audience in April 2018 as his wife played in Opera Roanoke’s “La Boheme” production. That show affected the EP’s music and lyrics, he said. McAuley produced, recorded and mixed the project in L.A. and at My Radio’s Roanoke studio. Powell first thought to do a short karaoke bar tour of the five songs, but McAuley suggested trying a full production.
Powell has done several years’ worth of Overnight Sensations, an annual event at Mill Mountain Theatre in which playwrights are randomly paired with directors and local actors for six 10-minute plays during two days in July. He prefers his stages with musical instruments, but has found Overnight Sensations to be “a little scary but also a lot of fun,” he said.
His next step was a story that, too, was inspired in part by McAuley — along with the Powells’ shih tzu/maltese mix. Bleu and dog became friends, and McAuley drew up a version of the pup that had a set of giant horns. It became the character “Maltease.”
Powell crafted an origin story that began with the Large Hadron Collider, buried nearly 600 feet deep beneath the French/Swiss border, near Geneva. The gargantuan machine, which its creators dubbed the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, has been the center of efforts to discern the universe’s origin and workings — as well as a locus of fear for universal destruction.
“The whole thing is predicated on this idea that someone turned on the hadron collider, accidentally, after hours, and that opened up a tiny black hole and pulled a sentient, totally happy being who had no concept of duality into our dimension and ripped him into two component parts, masculine canine and feminine feline,” Powell said.
He plays the title character, and Claire Nicolas plays his feline counterpart, Sphynxxx. Nicolas co-created the live show concept with Powell. Her brother, Julien Nicolas, designed and built the masks they will wear.
Maltease and Sphynxxx look to corral and return home with a pair of strangelets, described in physics literature as hypothetical particles consisting of up, down and strange quarks. They were released along with the other two characters, and their presence runs the risk of turning everything into strange matter. Modern dance performers Lynsey Grace and Shelby Scott are playing the Strangelets, named Lust and Curiosity.
Their presence adds a level of crowd participation. The audience will receive masks to wear during the show, which Powell hopes will ease crowd inhibitions with the Strangelets.
“They’re on the loose and mixing it up in the crowd,” Powell said. “Our purpose is to capture them. Our purpose is to have a grand reunification … and go home.”
Other performers include Beth Deel and Wendy Wertz Schuyler. My Radio drummer Johnson has a “secret part” in the show. Powell’s nephew, Liam Powell is running the computer, which includes McAuley’s lyric videos and canned narration from a character based on “Joe’s Garage” character The Central Scrutinizer. No live music performers will be on stage.
Roanoke comic Johnny Camacho will open the show with a stand-up set. Powell heard Camacho roast guests at a charity event, and knew he had to have him on the show.
“It’s been fun to chase something that’s out of my comfort zone,” Powell said, “and just chase it down the rabbit hole, completely.”