Rock’s Progress

20. December, 2010 Theater No comments

If you’re really, really looking forward to seeing Rock of Ages this spring (featuring “the mind-blowing, face-melting hits of Journey” et al.), you may want to tide yourself over by checking out a much smaller-scale ’80s-style rock musical finishing up its run in San Francisco this week.

Patrick Alparone, Michelle Maxson and Danielle Levin in The Man of Rock. Photo by Angela Manginelli.

The Man of Rock is the latest world premiere by suddenly prolific local playwright (and friend of the blog) Daniel Heath, whose A Merry FORKING! Christmas is also currently playing at the Off-Market Theaters right now, and whose Seven Days recently premiered at SF Playhouse.

A Climate Theater production at The Jewish Theatre, The Man of Rock is very loosely adapted from George Etherege’s 1676 Restoration comedy, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter. Dorimant, a shameless rake, ditches his current lover (and her best friend, whom he’s seeing on the sly) to seduce a beautiful young heiress–but in her he may have met his match in more ways than one.

In Heath’s version, Dorimant is both the lead singer in a rock band and the owner of a small rock club called the Edge on the 1980s-era Jersey Shore. Jeremy Harris’s set gives the sense of a slightly decadent dive, dominated by an industrial arch lined with 45s and floppy discs framing the small bar/keyboard (although it’s the tiniest rock club I’ve ever seen, and I used to review local bands in small bars for a living). Dorimant’s self-appointed protégé Sir Fopling is recast as J.J. Rock, a ludicrous hair-metal poseur with a giant Limahl coif and leopard-print tights, which is a nice touch because he’s no less foppish in the 1980s than his predecessor was in the 1670s. As Dorimant puts it, J.J. and his band “look like French whores caught in a wind tunnel.”

This isn’t a musical in which people break into song for no reason.  When they sing it’s because they’re performing onstage, rehearsing, or just playing each other a song they wrote. The songs, with music by Ken Flagg, are supposed to be like forgotten ’80s rock hits, and they live up to that concept both in style and in pleasant ephemerality. This isn’t the new wave sound that’s gone through revivals and that retro nostalgia likes to associate with the ’80s, but the cheesy ballads and hair metal that actually dominated MTV and the air waves at the time.

A sharp and versatile combo featuring NAME REDACTED* on bass, Joshua Hertel on guitar, Dane Johnson on keyboard, and Lance Gardner on drums doubles as Dorimant’s blasé band Silverwolf and J.J. Rock’s flamboyant combo Hämmer. Most of the characters sing at some point or another, and after seeing themas exceptional actors in so many plays it’s a treat to see Gardner (in a hilarious outfit of just sweatband and shorts) tearing up the drums and Arwen Anderson playing acoustic guitar.

The only trouble with the songs is that they don’t leave much time for plot or character development in the two-hour show. J.J. Rock makes a big entrance, for instance, but he never really becomes important to the story. When Dorimant says he’s a changed man and he’s in love for real, we accept it more because of the conventions of the genre than because we’ve seen much change in his behavior or a real spark grow between him and his one true love. We haven’t really spent enough time with them to judge.

But it’s an awfully fun show in a lively staging by Climate artistic director Jessica Heidt with an impressive cast. Adam Yazbeck’s Dorimant is a charming sleazebag who doesn’t even bother to try very hard to pick up women, relying on his pretty-boy looks and air of confidence. “You got a minute to come upstairs? I got a new mix tape or something,” he says by way of a pick-up line. There’s also something cold-blooded about him, a cold-blooded womanizer who likes to lure women into his bed but has no use for them afterward.

One thing that’s a little puzzling is his occasional habit of lapsing into flowery, archaic sentences that sound, well, like a Restoration comedy.  Every now and then he’ll bust out with a line like “Your ship of conjecture has left the meager harbor of the facts” that’s as far from the way he usually talks, as, well, from the way anyone usually talks. “Is someone somewhere paying you by the word?” his prospective conquest Toni asks. She may well ask.

Arwen Anderson is a sharp and formidable presence as the often exasperated heiress Antoinette, called Toni, who’s fed up with her nattering mother, with the jackasses on the street who come on to her, and especially with the insufferable Dorimant. She also plays Dorimant’s landlady, who turns him onto Toni’s scent with the thinnest of justifications (so that he’ll have money to actually pay his rent) in one of many thick Jersey accents.

Patrick Alparone is priceless as the preening, dim-witted but good-natured and endlessly enthusiastic J.J. Rock, the dedicated man of rock with a screeching falsetto. He also has a certain sardonic charm as preppy Harry Bellair, a lightly closeted gay man who both Toni’s mother and his father want to set up with Toni, and who also conveniently knows everybody in the play as a handy plot device for getting them to meet.

Michelle Maxson has ample rough-edged, blunt-instrument appeal as ditzy rocker chick Suzie Love, a groupie for Dorimant who gets upset if he plays “her song” at any gig she’s not at, and then latches onto the new rocker in town when Dorimant dumps her. She and Toni have a terrific knock-down, drag-out fight choreographed by Ken Sonkin.

Danielle Levin is particularly touching as Suzie’s moody friend Missy, who wearily, reluctantly falls for Dorimant against her better judgment, and she and Gardner are very funny as Toni’s snooty, high-strung mother and Harry’s boorish, stentorian father, making it hard to mind what a cartoonish pair of upper-class twits the characters are.  Many of the cast have cameos as various random loud mooks off the street, and sound guy Will McCandless has a couple of amusing appearances as the stoner sound guy.

As slight as the story feels at times, it’s also involving enough and the performances strong enough that you half expect a bunch of other characters to come onstage for the inevitable big group number at the end, almost forgetting that it’s impossible because all the actors who played them are already onstage. That’s not just the magic of theater at work–that’s the power of rock.

The Man of Rock
Through December 23
The Jewish Theatre
470 Florida St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #125 of 2010, attended December 11.

* The bass player for this show emailed me in early 2017, a little more than six years after this show, saying, “Please remove my name from your site as I have privacy concerns and, thus, explicitly opting out.” I don’t claim to understand how concealing the fact that this person played bass in a rock musical six years ago will help that the bass player’s privacy, but it’s no skin off my nose.

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