Lyric Theatre Rocks the Plaza With Spectacular ROCK OF AGES
There are few decades that elicit the kind of immediate, emotional and visceral response that you get when you mention the 1980s to anyone who was around during that era. There's just something about the 80s. The movies, the pop culture, the music, the politics, everything that went on during that decade seems to be somehow extra unique or extra special, especially to those who lived during those times. The hair band glam rock of the 80s gets the musical treatment in Rock of Ages, now running at the Lyric Theatre's home on the Plaza.
With songs from Whitesnake, Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi and many more, Rock of Ages has a book by Chris D'Arienzo and arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp. The show has been around in one incarnation or another since 2005. Since then, it's had a Broadway run, national tours, international productions in a number of countries, ran for years on the Las Vegas Strip, and spawned a movie version that's not as good as the stage musical.
Known as a rock musical or jukebox musical, this is not a musical review in the mold of something like Smokey Joe's Cafe or Ain't Misbehavin. Rather than a series of songs from a particular era sung one after another, Rock of Ages has an plot, actually two or three, that run throughout the show, tying everything together. It's impossible to tell whether D'Arienzo and Popp came up with the plot then searched for songs to fill it out or came up with the songs they wanted to use then figured out a plot to tie them together. Whether it was the chicken or the egg that came first, they put it together brilliantly.
Taking place on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, the main plot concerns Drew, a wannabee rock star from Detroit, and his love interest, Sherrie, an aspiring actress from Kansas. They meet at the Bourbon Room, a famous and infamous dive bar/rock concert venue, owned by Dennis Dupree, where Drew works and occasionally plays. The Bourbon Room is in danger of being torn down by Hertz, a German developer in town with his son, who hopes to demolish the Sunset Strip, if only they can get rid of all the protesters trying to stop them.
Yes, the plot is not particularly original and that's probably by design. Nothing about this show takes itself seriously which is also, I'm sure, on purpose. Everything is played for fun and entertainment value, with tounge planted firmly in cheek. There are winks to numerous 80s fads and trends, including more than a few prop and costume choices that fans of the 80s will love. At the same time, there are equally hilarious nods to musical theater, again, all in the name of fun.
Director Ashley Wells maintains that emphasis on fun in this production where everyone seems to be having an incredibly fun time, and they invite the audience to join them in the revelry. The songs, jokes and laughs come fast and furious throughout, especially in the first act, when things move just a little too fast. The pace really could be slowed down at a few key moments in Act One when things really feel rushed. Drew and Sherrie's first meeting feels that way, with important moments of connection glossed over quickly, and their first date scene also feels rushed and fails to let them really connect.
Act Two feels a bit like a different show in terms of pace and tone. While it seems as if everyone is rushing around in the first half, it appears in the second that they've all calmed down and begun to relax into their performances. There are more slower, quieter moments in the second act and more moments of real connection between the characters. It makes the show, when taken as a whole, feel uneven, as far as pacing and character depth/development are concerned.
It's no surprise that Wells and Lyric have brought together such a stellar cast for this production. Leading the way is Gregory DeCandia who plays Dennis' assistant Lonnie, who is also our narrator as we journey back through the 80s. DeCandia gives what is basically a master class on crafting and developing a character and then committing to it fully. He becomes Lonnie completely, creating a character who is lovable, hilarious, sympathetic, insightful, honest and completely rocks.
An equally committed and fully realized performance is given by Lyric favorite Lexi Windsor as Regina, the leader of the protesters trying to save the Bourbon Room. Windsor again fully inhabits her character and creates a unique and wonderful persona on stage, filled with her usual charisma and charm. She's also hilarious every time she opens her mouth.
Derrick Medrano gives a performance as Drew that will likely get better and better with time. At first, he seemed tentative and unsure, perhaps opening night jitters, and then at times he appeared to be trying a little too hard. After intermission, though, he began to nail it, finding the levels and nuances of a role which he seemed more comfortable in. He has some great moments in the second half to go along with his excellent voice, which is strong throughout.
An even stronger voice comes from his partner-in-love Sherrie, payed here by Lauren Urso. On opening night, she was especially helped when they changed the awful wig that completely blocked her face during most of Act One. Hopefully, somebody connected with the show had gone backstage at intermission and said, "Nobody can see her face!" It makes a huge difference when the audience can actually see the character's face and eyes. For Urso, her excellent performance in Act One got even better in the second half. Vocally, Urso can definitely hit all the high notes but she's even better when she dials down the belting. She spends much of Act One walking the tightrope between belting and screaming, precariously close to falling over onto the wrong side. When she tones that down a bit and truthfully lives what she is singing, she's stunningly good.
Speaking of stunning, the character of rock god Stacee Jaxx thrives on his ego and how stunning everyone thinks he is. It takes a certain kind of actor to nail the role and Joshua Hobbs nails it in every way possible. He's got the look, the voice, the charisma, the attitude and the abs. He's perfect for this role which he probably can keep playing forever in one production or another. His scene with Urso, when Stacee and Sherrie go into the men's room together for you-know-what, is worth the price of admission by itself.
Also stunning in all the best ways are the trio of performers making up the female ensemble, Tatum Ludlam, Kaylene Snarsky and Emily J. Pace. Ludlam has a killer voice, it's a shame she doesn't get more solo song time, though she does have a couple of great moments when "Waitress One" interacts with Sherrie and Stacee. Snarsky is an excellent dancer and Pace, while she doesn't necessarily get a great solo moment, is excellent at always lending focus and energy to a scene. The three of them make a scene better with just their presence, as a good ensemble should.
Vince Leseney is wonderful as the lovable Dennis, owner of the Bourbon Room. You really can imagine him hanging out and partaking in sex, drugs and rock and roll with the great rockers of old. Michael Andreaus gives two Great Performances, as both the Mayor and Ja'Keith Gill, a record producer. He gives the two characters their own personality and is especially hilarious as the Mayor. The always-hilarious Justin Larman is perfect once again as Hertz, the German developer. As his son Franz, Keith Gruber is Larman's equal, matching him in hilarity and talent. Nakeisha McGee is fantastic as Justice, the strip club owner with a heart of gold. She nails the vocals and has a couple of great moments with Urso. Last but definitely not least is Sheridan McMichael who plays Joey Primo and takes full advantage of his moments to shine in any scene, including when an unnamed ensemble character.
There of course has to be a rock band invovled in a rock musical about 80s glam rock and Lyric's band is fantastic. Onstage for the entire production, they provide the music while also portraying the parts of Stacee Jaxx's former band. Brian Hamilton is the Music Director with Mike Mosteller on drums, Clinton Trench on bass, and Than Medlam and Jay Gleason playing guitar. Also more than deserving of mention is Amy Reynolds-Reed and the exceptional choreography. Featuring everything from the robot and the running man to jazz hands, it's always fun, always entertaining and always perfectly suited for the moment.
There were some sound issues on opening night which I'm guessing will be gone in future performances, mostly involving levels that made certain actors too loud and others too soft or the band too loud. Other than that, the show's technical elements are all perfect. The set by Uldarico Sarmiento perfectly recreates every dive bar you've ever been into. J. Stephen Toney's lighting design perfectly sets the mood at times while turning the Lyric's space into a rock concert at other times. Props by Courtney Strong also perfectly create the setting with some wonderful 80s throwbacks. And the greatest throwback of all comes from Jeffrey Meek's incredible costume design, with just about every 80s fashion thrown in for good measure.
A list of the songs included in the show is just too long to include here and even to list the highlights would take a while. There are numerous wonderful musical moments throughout that will have you head banging, tapping your feet and maybe even dancing in the aisles (which is encouraged by the cast). If you love the 80s, go see it. If you hate the 80s, go see it anyway. If you love musicals, go see it. If you just want a night of fun, entertaining, sexy, rock-and-roll awesomeness, go see it. It is an experience not to be missed.
Rock of Ages runs through November 4th at Lyric at the Plaza, at 1725 NW 16th Street in Oklahoma City. Performances are Wednesdays at 7:30, Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00, and Sundays at 5:00. For tickets or for additional information, call 405-524-9312 or visit www.lyrictheatreokc.com.
Pictured: The cast of Rock of Ages at Lyric Theatre. Photo by KO Rinearson.
Note: Rock of Ages contains adult material and is for mature audiences.