Given the current amount of classic rock radio programming across the country, it should not come as a surprise that a jukebox musical based on 1980’s rock is so well received. Still, the longevity of this production -- opening in L.A. in 2005, hitting Broadway in 2009 where it was nominated for 5 Tony Awards, currently on 2nd national tour -- is impressive to say the least. What might have easily begun and ended as a goofy experiment or an extended Second City skit has even spawned a summer movie with no less than Tom Cruise in a leading role.
The touring production that opened on June 6, 2012 at the Broadway Playhouse continues “down the only road [its] ever known,” to steal a phrase from Whitesnake. Rock appropriately takes center stage here, with a book that attempts to string a catalog of recognizable tunes into a collective whole with a storyline. While adopting many musical theater conventions – a narrator that is also a character in the show, a simple boy-meets-girl/loses-girl plot, and even a dream version of the lead female character – “Rock of Ages” crams a metal songbook into two acts of driving rock, raunch, and retro silliness. Breaking the fourth wall, characters enter through the house and even address audience members. The onstage band, comprised of seasoned rock and theater professionals Darren Ledbetter (piano), Chris Cicchino (lead guitar), Maddox (guitar), Andy Gerold (bass), and drummer Alan Childs (encased behind a Plexiglas wall), is strong and well balanced. Intellibeam lighting instruments criss-cross through the audience, making for an effective hybrid of part theater, part rock concert.
The main plot involves a young busboy, Drew (played by Dominique Scott) of an infamous club on the Sunset Strip called The Bourbon Room. While harboring aspirations to be a rocker, Drew meets and falls for Sherrie (played by Shannon Mullen), the newly hired waitress from Kansas who yearns to be an actress.
One subplot involves a greedy German developer’s attempts to raze The Bourbon Room in order to make way for a Footlocker. Another involves the two lead characters’ downward spiral into “selling out,” Drew as a leader of a boy band, Sherrie as a stripper. Then there is Stacee Jaxx, played by Matt Nolan, incorrigible lothario and ex-lead singer of the group Arsenal, asked to frontline one last concert at The Bourbon Room in an attempt to generate more money and save the venue from the wrecking ball.
And like a wrecking ball, there is nothing subtle about this production, undoubtedly the intention of the writer, Chris D’Arienzo and director Kristin Hanggi. Ham-fisted mugging, hip thrusting, big hair, band names like “Concrete Balls” and “Steel Jizz,” and lots and lots of tongue wagging makes for a non-stop evening of over-the-top energy and crassness. The choreography, by Kelly Devine, is representative of music videos of the time, so that could be an asset or a detriment, depending on your opinion of that genre. Reminding us that 80’s metal rock was never the pinnacle of gender equity, the female dancers arch and squat provocatively in high heels, fishnets and push up bras. If that doesn’t satisfy, the “gentlemen’s club” scenes adds lingerie and pole dancing to the mix. One comic relief character goes by the name Regina, with an emphasis on the long “i” pronunciation. Get it? Yeah, the comedy frequently aims low.
Still, the show is not without its charms. Various song mash-ups are clever and fun, the arrangements and performances of the songs are powerful, and the leads are strong vocalists who blend well. Supporting actress Amma Osei is particularly impressive with a seemingly effortless vocal power and range. There are wonderful comedic moments throughout as well, such as the Time-Life list of iconic rock songs from the 80s scrolling on the upstage projection during one scene. A date involving a miniature prop Volkswagen and wine coolers to the tune of Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You” showcases the comic timing and vocal ranges of Mullen and Scott. While the role of Lonny, played by Justin Colombo, is frequently grating, his scene hugging a fog machine to his chest like a beloved pet is hilarious, the “Fogmaster 5000” puffing its last before Lonny tearfully breaks into REO Speedwagon’s, “I Can’t Fight this Feeling.”
The set design, by Beowulf Boritt, has just the right amount of graffiti and grunge. When Sherrie surveys the dank bar for the first time, she takes a deep, appreciative inhalation and states that the place “even smells like rock… and urine.” You can practically feel your boots sticking on the bathroom floor.
Ultimately, it’s the playlist and driving performance of each tune that propels the show forward. Whitesnake, Quiet Riot, Styx, Asia, Guns and Roses, and Van Halen are some of the bands covered. Ranging from ballads to anthems, the songs are undeniably memorable, and many of the audience members sing along. From the southern-fueled guitar licks of “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” to the fist pumping pulse of “Here I Go Again,” this show may cause you to raise your LED lighters (souvenirs provided by the theater) and sway. After all, the guitar solo shredding the stage shows no sign of letting up.
The performance schedule for Rock of Ages is as follows:
Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 pm
Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm
Sundays at 2 pm and 7:30 pm
Tickets are on sale now and range from $70-$80. A select number of premium seats are also available for all performances. Tickets are available now for groups of 15 or more by calling Broadway in Chicago Group Sales at (312) 977-1710
Photos: SCOTT SUCHMAN