BWW Review: ROCK OF AGES at Casa Manana

BWW Review: ROCK OF AGES at Casa Manana
James Scheider (without wig) and Shannon Mullen
in Casa Manana's ROCK OF AGES promo photo.

When ROCK OF AGES (the stage musical...not the dreadful movie) debuted on Broadway in 2014, they were "Living on a Prayer" that they'd find enough middle-aged former frat guys and metal heads willing to rock out on The Great White Way, but after 2,328 New York performances of people saying "I Wanna Rock" at the box office, it was clear that they'd gotten "High Enough" to be a bonafide Broadway hit. [If this is too many 80's puns for you, then ROCK OF AGES probably isn't up your alley, dude.] Now appearing in regional theaters across the country, the musical is nice break from safer titles like JOSEPH, GUYS AND DOLLS or THE MUSIC MAN, which have overly peppered each season at [fill in the Blank Theatre company]. And although those more familiar shows might find greater success in the Fort Worth dome, this exceptional approach by Casa Manana is a great effort that should be applauded and rewarded by people wanting to see something other than SOUND OF MUSIC.

Here's the story: "Born and raised in South Detroit," Drew (James Scheider) is just a city boy wannabe rocker working at an L.A. club on the Sunset Strip. He falls for small-town actress Sherrie (Shannon Mullen), fresh off the bus from Kansas, who lands a survival job at the same Bourbon Club where Drew works. The pair reports to club-owner Dennis Dupree (Christian Whelan), who manages the club alongside long-time pal, Lonny (John Hays), who serves as the club's sound check guy - as well as the show's fourth-wall-breaking narrator.

Trouble quickly arises when a German businessman and his sassy son (Hertz and Franz Klinemann, played by Bob Hess and Charlie H. Ray, respectively) plot to sanitize the gritty L.A. scene and demolish the club. Borrowing from the old Hollywood idea of putting on a show to save the day, Dennis reaches out to rock star Stacee Jaxx (Adam Michaels), who made his debut in the club, to book his act, hoping to cash in on his fame and fortune. Thrown into the mix are protesters (led by Regina [rhymes with the female body part], played Laura Wetsel), groupies, and scantily dressed waitresses. There are even a handful of edgy strippers, managed by a woman known only as Justice (M. Denise Lee.) To top it all off, the show is jam-packed with every major 80's rock song you can squeeze into a 2.5 hour evening.

In the Broadway staging of the show, the environment was created to look, feel, smell and taste like a rock concert. With bartenders pushing drinks through the aisles of the theatre, the audience found a freedom to cheer and sing along with the famous tunes (even if the speakers were too loud to be heard over). Between the countless radio hits, the show's book scenes flew by with a laugh a minute which, when combined with a rowdy drinking crowd, provided for a (literal) pee-your-pants funny kind of night. This wasn't "appropriate" etiquette for traditional musical theatre, and that's exactly what the success of the show was built on.

Casa Manana's production, while an exciting departure from their traditional fare, is a more polite approach to the show. By the start of their second (and final) week of performances, the cast has yet to perfect the balance between the over-the-top script's campy humor and the fleshed-out characters written to string the plot together. The talented cast creates some thrilling entertainment, but the potential of the material is not fully realized on the Casa stage.

The ladies of this cast offer the audience the most bang-for-their-buck. Leading lady Shannon Mullen is fresh off the ROCK OF AGES national tour, recreating the role she performed on the road for three years. As Sherrie, she is most comfortable at pacing herself through the shows tongue-in-cheek narrative, and when she gets the chance to hit some high notes, her golden voice truly soars. The same can be said for local favorite M. Denise Lee, who perfectly nails every note and laugh line. Her ability to own the stage with her vibrant presence is uniquely impressive. Laura Wetsel wins the audience over, not only as the quirky hippy Regina, but also in her cameo as the ballsy stripper, Candy. And when the ensemble is on stage, good luck taking your eyes off of Emmie Kivell, whose energy dominates the stage from the moment her high heels first strut across.

Of the men, the highlights come directly from the supporting actors: Adam Michaels possesses as sexy a voice as he does body as troublesome rocker Stacee; Bob Hess milks all of the laughs he can out of uptight Hertz, and Charlie H. Ray steals all of Act Two with his side-splitting turn in "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." As Drew, James Scheider (dressed as a baby-faced Weird Al Yankovic) displays an impressive set of pipes, which often has too clean a quality for the rocker his character claims and aims to be. He struggles with meeting the energy and comedic timing of his scene partner and never seems to loosen up enough to be completely comfortable rocking out. John Hays finds the greatest challenge in landing the college humor his dialogue suggests. His contributions seem put-on, losing the laughs that a more spontaneous approach would guarantee. When he gets a chance to show off his voice towards the end of the show, his skill is obvious, but it may come too late.

Director Adam John Hunter and choreographer Jeremy Dumont have created a visually exciting show, with creative staging that shows off both the cast and the creative elements. Lighting design by Samuel Rushen, and scenery by Adam Koch create the perfect concert-style setting, which takes the Casa stage to an all-time high. Tammy Spencer (costumes) and Catherine Petty-Rogers (hair, wigs and makeup) deserve kudos for setting the stage with an epic 80's look. Perhaps the lighting-speed rehearsal process is to blame for the missed comedic opportunities, but it's nothing a couple of shots (for both the cast and crowd) couldn't fix.

Casa Manana's ROCK OF AGES runs through June 11th. Tickets and more information can be found at www.CasaManana.org

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