Rock of Ages
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 15, 2008
Please do yourself a favor: do not go see Rock of Ages in search of great art. The creators are not trying to reinvent the wheel. They simply want the audience to have some fun. Consider their mission accomplished. In tugging the nostalgic heartstrings of its target audience—namely, anyone who came of age during the 1980s—Rock of Ages displays a meta-theatrical artistry that winks oh-so-knowingly at the crowd while giving them a howling good time.
The show, little more than a glorified sing-a-long, is loaded with iconic '80s rock anthems and power ballads made famous by a score of hair/guitar bands. Van Halen, Poison, Journey, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, and many other supergroups of the era are present and accounted for. Led by a muscular, crackerjack house band, Rock of Ages brings their songs alive with a guitar-shredding vengeance that satisfies everyone from the well-soused front rows (the show features personal waitress service during the performance) to the cheap seat screamers in the balcony (who get more than a few shout-outs). This is jukebox musical heaven taken to its most enjoyable extreme.
Is plot really necessary under these circumstances? Probably not, but book writer Chris D'Arienzo gives it a try anyway and comes up with a more than serviceable story. There's Drew, the transplanted Midwesterner who dreams of rock stardom, and Sherrie, the girl next door with her sights on the silver screen. They meet cute in mid-to-late 1980s Los Angeles and are soon working together at a Sunset Strip nightclub threatened by the wrecking ball (realized impressively by set designer Beowulf Boritt as a well-dressed hybrid of a rock club and a Wild West saloon). Will the temptations of fame thwart their budding romance? Will the club be saved in enough time for one last rocking musical number? I think you can probably guess the rest, but that doesn't make getting there any less fun.
Thankfully, Rock of Ages doesn't take itself seriously at all. I mean, this is a show where the narrator—a mullet-wearing jokester named Lonny, who is played by the lively Mitchell Jarvis as if he were channeling Jack Black—admits that his original dream was to be a great theatre artist. "Instead," he dryly admits, "I got to narrate a show with poop jokes and Whitesnake songs." Ersatz lighters are placed in the programs for audience members to hold up in lit tribute whenever their favorite power ballad comes around (those lighters got a lot of play on the night I attended). A four-pack of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers generates one of the biggest ovations of the night. Even Ralph Macchio's famous move from The Karate Kid—"The Crane"—gets a much-appreciated homage. No aspect of '80s pop culture is safe from a loving jab here.
The energetic and likable cast mostly has a good time even if many of them do occasionally get caught with that "What the hell am I doing in this show?" look on their face. Constantine Maroulis is sweet and endearing as Drew, showing off some nice comic chops and (of course) his much better-known singing voice (he sounds great). Will Swenson practically steals the show with his David Lee Roth-inspired performance as Stacee Jaxx, the rock star who may be the nightclub's only hope. His Act I rendition of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" is a show-stopping highlight. In addition to the aforementioned Jarvis, Rock of Ages also gets strong comedic support from Adam Dannheisser as the club's aging hippie owner; Lauren Molina as a militant flower child city planner; and Wesley Taylor as the swishy son of the evil German developer (but according to him he's not gay, he's just German—insert rimshot here).
Director Kristin Hanggi and choreographer Kelly Devine's high energy contributions evoke the golden age of heavy metal videos perfectly. Flowing locks, studded leather jackets, and scantily clad dancing girls with an endless supply of stripper-like dance moves proliferate here. It's almost like watching your favorite Warrant/Cinderella/Night Ranger video live.
Be forewarned, however: despite the show's title, there are no Def Leppard songs included (a pre-show announcement cheekily declares that the producers couldn't get the rights to any of them). And Rock of Ages does err on the longish side: the intermission break came right at the point where I figured everything would be tied up in the next ten minutes. Little did I know there was another hour to go. But, with all the songs the producers do have, who wants to go home right away? To paraphrase a song from the show, Rock of Ages ain't nothin' but a good time. And, for what this highly entertaining show is, it don't get better than this.