SALT LAKE CITY — If you survived stonewashed jeans, crimped hair, turquoise sequined leotards, studded leather, denim, leg warmers, shoulder pads, sweatbands and glam rock, then Rock of Ages will make you wanna rock! If you go to this show expecting a Broadway musical, you’ll be disappointed. With guitar solos, fog machines, lighters waving overhead and bawdy humor (not appropriate for the young ones), Rock of Ages is more rock concert than musical theater.
The touring production of Rock of Ages with Broadway Across America crashes into the world of the 1980’s glam rock music scene, with a comedic look at the debauchery and overindulgence that encompassed this era. The show is set to a gigantic mash-up of songs from Styx, Journey, Quit Riot, Warrant, Twisted Sister, Poison, Bon Jovi and many others. In typical jukebox musical fashion, it streams together familiar tunes with a loose and simple narrative. However, book writer Chris D’Arienzo slings one-line zingers and “inside jokes” for theater lovers (“Playbill holding freak machine!”) and the eighties babies (867-5309 T-shirt) in spades.
As mullet wearing Lonny (Justin Colombo), also serving as narrator of the show (“I’m no Andrew Lloyd Sondhiem…”), outlines in the opening scenes. The story is about wannabe rock star, Drew (Danny McHugh) who falls in love with wannabe actress, Sherrie (Shannon Mullen). Drew works as a busboy at The Bourbon Room, a club on the Sunset Strip when he meets Sherrie Christian, also called “Sister Christian,” who has recently moved from Kansas to find fame and fortune in Hollywood. Drew convinces his boss Dennis Dupree (Matt Ban) to hire Sherrie as a waitress.
Meanwhile, a German developer (Philip Peterson) and his son (Stephen Michael Kane) convince the mayor (Joey Elrose) of the city that he has to rid the streets of rock and roll to introduce “clean living” in the form of strip malls and corporate development. Hearing that his club is in danger of demolition and in an attempt to save it, Dupree convinces famous band Arsenal, led by Stacee Jaxx (Matt Nolan) to perform their last show at The Bourbon Room where they got their start. And with this, the foundation is set for love triangles with mixed messages, ambitions that may turn to shattered dreams and general insurgence against society—all set to laugh-out-loud humor and a nostalgic soundtrack.
The performance by Danny McHugh as the lead was amazing in some moments but lackluster in others. The notes he hit in “The Search is Over” (as well as several different songs) were brilliant, but the rocker wanting to be free in “I Wanna Rock” didn’t quite come through. Perhaps this was an intentional choice to show the transformation of the character throughout the show, but it lagged nonetheless. Shannon Mullen as Sherrie, the farm girl turned fame seeking Californian, emits an edge that makes her journey believable but has just enough kindness to be reminded of her roots. As Stacee Jaxx (Nolan) enters to “Wanted Dead or Alive” he drips with sleazy, rock star, sex appeal. In “I Wanna Know What Love Is” these two mingle in a hysterical, hair flinging, comedic and angst ridden rendezvous. But not all is lost in campy tributes to the ’80s, “Harden My Heart / Shadows of the Night” is a beautiful ballad leading into “Here I go Again” which leaves everyone alone at the end of Act I.
Act II opens with the German father and son development team in “The Final Countdown.” The son Franz (Kane) drew my attention in nearly every scene. He flamboyantly leapt and pranced on and off stage and at one point busts out in a turquoise sequined leotard in “Hit me with Your Best Shot.” For all intents and purposes he appears, to those on and off stage, to be gay until he proclaims, “I’m not gay, I’m just German.”
Finally, my favorite pairing of actors was the friendship between Lonny (the narrator) and Dennis (the bar owner). Lonny’s outrageous and crude humor paired with the longhaired, pot-smoking attitude of Dennis reached the hysterical highpoint during a Dirty Dancing-reminiscent lift in “Can’t Fight this Feeling.” Both were able to showcase their singing chops in this overly emotional ballad. Speaking of singing chops, a deserved shot out to Tymisha ‘Tush” Harris as Waitress #1 and Amma Osei as Justice.
The choreography, originally done by Kelly Devine and recreated for the tour by Marco Santana, was like watching a music video on MTV 20 years ago (you know, back when they showed music videos). It was truly one of the highlights of the evening. However, this is also one of the weak spots. Other than a few of the actors, most seemed to be simply going through the motions rather than hitting any of the movements with conviction, especially by the end of the show.
On a completely different note, aside from the production, I’d like to commend the customer service at Kingsbury Hall and Broadway Across America. I also happen to be a season ticket holder to Broadway Across America and had purchased my tickets nearly a year ago to Rock of Ages. Thus, when the review with Utah Theater Bloggers Association came through, I advised them that I had tickets to the show for Saturday night and would attend that performance. To my horror, when I pulled out my tickets at 6:00 pm, I found that they were actually for the 2:00 pm show. I promptly called Kingsbury and advised them of the bind I was in. However, I didn’t tell them that I was also reviewing the show. Luckily for me, the show wasn’t quite sold out (though it looked pretty darn close) and they gave me tickets to attend the evening performance. So, I’d like to thank Kingsbury Hall and Broadway Across America for the amazing customer service and experience.
According to my partner in crime on Saturday night, “Rock of Ages is the best show I’ve ever seen! If all musicals were like this, I’d understand why you love them so much.” While probably not my favorite show ever, Rock of Ages is a fantastical romp through the outrageous 1980’s. Any person who experienced this decade should make a point to see this insanely funny and irreverent show. Unfortunately, ROA has already left Salt Lake City. With upcoming tour stops in California, Colorado and Arizona, you still have a chance to meet up with this great cast. In addition, it’s still playing on Broadway and is being released as a full-length movie this summer (staring Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx).
Note: There were several substitutions with understudies in this performance. I was able to catch several names during the announcement in addition to talking with someone from the tour at intermission. However, there is a chance I didn’t get everything quite right. Please submit a change if needed. Thanks for understanding.