Sprechen Sie Rock?

I should be exactly the right age for Rock of Ages. The Broadway jukebox musical is set in Los Angeles in the mid to late ’80s, which was when I was in high school, so I already know pretty much all of the songs. The trouble is, Rock of Ages features pretty much all of the music I hated in high school. Unlike most Broadway popsicals it’s not mining the songbook of any one act but capturing the musical underbelly of an era. Nominated for several Tony Awards in 2009 (but winner of none, which is merely confirmation that it did indeed have a Broadway run), the shows billed as “an arena-rock love story told through the mind-blowing, face-melting hits of Journey, Night Ranger, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison, Asia, Whitesnake and many more.” (Not to mention Foreigner, Starship, Europe, Extreme, Steve Perry, Bon Jovi, Quarterflash, Quiet Riot, Damn Yankees, Survivor and—a rare bright spot—Joan motherfucking Jett.) Now, I don’t much enjoy having my face melted, particularly with Journey, but I was resigned to an evening of sappy ballads and lite metal.

Yep, that’s Rock of Ages. Photo by Winslow Townson.

The fact is, by now something akin to nostalgia has set in. I still don’t like these songs, but it’s been long enough since they were inescapable on the radio and MTV (back when MTV still played music videos) that they’re not nearly as actively irritating as they used to be. With all the revisionist nostalgia and period kitsch, at this point Rock of Ages might as well be Grease—only, you know, greasier.

Now touring with its original Broadway direction by Kristin Hanggi, Rock of Ages now comes to the Curran Theatre in SHN’s Best of Broadway series—the second SHN show in a row to have its opening night the same night as American Conservatory Theater right next door. If this keeps up, they may have to rumble.

The show’s set in a rock club on the Sunset Strip, with electric guitars on the walls and an omnipresent bar band that plays all the hits. This is the Bourbon Room, a “legendary temple of rock ’n’ roll kickassery” whose owner Dennis Dupree (a likeably laid-back Nick Cordero) was once in a band that opened for the Alan Parsons Project. Beowulf Boritt’s set is appropriately gaudy, lined with neon signs, palm trees and an Angelyne billboard, plus a video screen that’s only partly visible from way off to the side where I was sitting. Gregory Gale’s costumes couldn’t be sluttier or tackier, which again is clearly the look they’re going for. (It is amusing, however, that when our small-town heroine becomes a stripper it’s the first time we see her in a skirt that goes any lower than her crotch.)

The story by Chris D’Arienzo is clearly inspired by the lyrics of the songs the show patches together.  Swabbing the decks in the bar is Drew (“just a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit, took the midnight train going anywhere”), who aspires to become a rock god named Wolfgang von Colt. Drew is played by 2005 American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis of the original Broadway cast, who brings a winning sensitivity to the role.  He falls hard for the new girl fresh off the train from Kansas (“just a small town girl, living in a lonely world, took the midnight train going anywhere”) named Sherrie (“oh Sherrie, ooour love hooooolds on, hooooolds on”), who’s immediately hired as the new barmaid. Elicia MacKenzie is all chirpy positivity as Sherrie, and both pack powerful voices. But all’s not well in rock ’n’ roll paradise (or “Just Like Paradise,” anyway). A German developer (Bret Tuomi) wants to clean up the Strip into a strip mall, and the bar’s about to be seized through eminent domain. While Drew’s too shy to make a move, Sherrie is seduced and cast aside by a boorish rock star who gets her fired, and next thing you know she’s working as a stripper and Drew’s been repackaged as a boy-band act. However will they survive the ’80s? Could this be the end … for rock? (Spoiler: no.)

A number of the characters are broad stereotypes—the effeminate young German man, the shrill Berkeley activist—just barely redeemed by undermining the stereotypes late in the show. Not the Berkeley radical Regina, which rhymes with vagina, played by Casey Tuma; she’s just as fanatical as she appears to be, yelling “power to the proletariat” and trying to jump off buildings in protest. (Cue Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and Starship’s “We Built This City”) Travis Walker’s effete Franz sympathizes with the rockers but frets about going against his dad. The goofy character roles also use their goofy character voices when they sing, so you can add “ear bleeding” to the list of injuries this show promises. Peter Deiwick is priceless as preening David Lee Roth type rocker Stacee Jaxx, and Teresa Stanley provides the obligatory soulful belting as strip club madam Justice, dressed like an extra from Wicked. Rashad Naylor rubs himself all over with bribe money as an Arsenioesque mayor and gets Drew to sell out as his agent.

Rock of Ages’s primary virtue as a musical is that it doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and that goes for the music as well.  The humor is hit-or-miss, but it has its moments, and some of the best jokes are poking fun at the show’s own plot holes. Narrator Lonny (Patrick Lewallen), the sound guy in the bar, looks a bit like Meat Loaf in The Rocky Horror Picture Show but has a sarcastic, campy quality that grates on the nerves. He’s in on the fact that it’s a musical and is the most likely to comment on it. There’s a running gag about Drew trying to write an original song (and inevitably stumbling up against the word “boobies”) because the club doesn’t book cover bands, which is mildly amusing because of course the whole show is one big cover act. Oh, and there are a whole lot of dick jokes, although the band names (Steel Jizz, Taint) are pretty funny.

Arranged by Ethan Popp, very few of the songs are sung all the way through but are dished out in snippets that make them seem like the mere pop-culture references they are, or strung together in medleys. But the song placement is savvy, with what would seem like a smash end to the first act (Drew’s showstopping performance of Slade’s “Cum on Feel the Noize,” an ’80s  hit for Quiet Riot) followed by a bit more plot and metacommentary and then by a more appropriate closer, Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.” Most importantly, the show doesn’t skimp on showmanship. It may be shameless to prod people on their feet to sing and clap along (though it ensures you an already-standing ovation), but it works. A large enough portion of the crowd really got into the show to make for a whole lot of hooting and hollering, and not just from the members of the original bands scattered among the audience. But surely shame has no place in rock, and certainly not in Rock of Ages.

Rock of Ages
Through April 9
Curran Theatre
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #20 of 2011, attended March 9.

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