Ah, the music of the mid-to-late 1980s. Now that was my era. The Roches, The Dead Milkmen, Loudon Wainwright III. Lining up for hours to catch Michelle Shocked at The Bottom Line. Elegant evenings of Mel Torme at Michael's Pub and Jack Jones at The Supper Club. Man, I loved that 80s music.
Needless to say, I never heard of any of the songs bookwriter Chris D'Arienzo compiled for his 1980s hair-band tuner, Rock of Ages, now inspiring grownups to wave little Bic-lighter shaped flashlights in the air during power ballads. Oh sure, I've heard the names of the artists whose music is used (Journey, Styx, Asia, Twisted Sister, Bon Jovi, Foreigner and a bunch of others) and I think I recognized a few of their hooks from TV commercials and pro wrestling telecasts. There's no song list in the Playbill, since each number acts as a sort of punch line to its scene ("Oh look, that character says she and her compatriots aren't going to take it anymore. I wonder if there's an 80s song that appropriately expresses her current attitude.") but my guest, who actually did listen to this kind of music in her more callow days, advised me that I can easily determine each song's title by just jotting down the phrase that gets endlessly repeated. So I can write with confidence that the makeshift score includes such loudly played compositions as, "I Wanna Rock," "Waiting For A Girl Like You," "I Want To Know What Love Is," "Here I Go Again," "I Can't Fight The Feeling," and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair." (Just checking to see if you're paying attention.) And thankfully, unlike the creators of many musicals of this ilk, D'Arienzo actually makes sure the songs make some kind of sense within the context of his story. (Remember that scene in Good Vibrations when the couple sang "God Only Knows (What I'd Be Without You)" after they had been separated for ten years?)
I enjoyed quite a lot of Rock of Ages; even though the songs don't carry the same nostalgic appeal for me as it does for its target audience. (Though I will admit a quick mention of Reunite on ice did bring back memories.) Sure, it would have been better off as a ninety-minute intermissionless show, as the production really starts losing steam early in Act II (Hint: When an author suddenly starts going Pirandello in the second half it usually means he's run out of ideas.), but much of it is good, stupid, noisy fun that doesn't take itself as anything more than good, stupid, noisy fun.
Mitchell Jarvis, whose entire Playbill bio is a personal ad, nicely establishes a self-mocking tone as the mullet-topped narrator who takes us back to, "a sexier time; the Reagan era!" We're in Los Angeles - a city that, as I'm to understand it, was built on rock and roll - in an old dump of a bar that's regarded as a music landmark for being the launching pad for the world-famous rocker, Stacee Jaxx (a very funny James Carpinello as a well-chiseled, bleached-blonde bundle of self-absorbed testosterone) and his band, Arsenal. The intentionally thin love story matches a young songwriting janitor with dreams of rock stardom (a likeable Constantine Maroulis) with a new-in-town wannabe actress (Amy Spanger doing her usual bang-up job of belting and dancing). Their romance hits the skids when Maroulis uses the f-word (friends) on their first date.
The subplot has the severely underutilized Paul Schoeffler barking out lines as a German real estate developer who wants to pave paradise and put up a parking lot. (Oops! Wrong decade. I mean he wants to tear down the club and build a mall or something.) Wesley Taylor plays his son, a character seemingly inspired by Legally Blonde's musical question, "Is he gay or just European."
I'm assuming that Kristin Hanggi's direction and Kelly Devine's choreography both contain 80s-inspired visuals that reference iconic moments that go beyond my general frame of reference, but the best I can tell you that it's all rather peppy and fun, as are Gregory Gale's trashy costumes, Beowulf Boritt's grimy dive bar set and Jason Lyons' concert-inspired lighting.
Rock of Ages ain't exactly my kinda show, but I had some fun. It's spirited, well-intentioned rocker fluff. And if that's your kinda show, you'll probably have a blast.
Posted on April 25, 2009 - by
About the Author: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.