BWW Review: Pittsburgh CLO's ROCK OF AGES at Benedum Center Is (Almost) Just Like Paradise
As someone who has been in a garage band and played more than a few of these songs- as someone who thinks "Can't Fight This Feeling" is the greatest and best love song in the history of the world ever- I'm inclined to be partial to Rock of Ages. As someone who has written the libretti for several musicals, I'm inclined to admire the show for being as clever-stupid as it is, simultaneously a fun jukebox musical and a satire of the derivative paint-by-numbers plotting thereof. And as someone who has been compelled to perform in, and see, Mamma Mia repeatedly since its rights were released, the joyous absurdity of this show was the perfect antidote to the ABBA musical's somewhat self-serious musings on relationships and parenthood. So if you're looking for nothin' but a good time, CLO has one ready and waiting.
The plot of Rock of Ages is the plot of EVERY SINGLE EIGHTIES BRO COMEDY: awkward dork with a heart of gold Drew (Justin Matthew Sargent) wants to be a rock star, and to impress Manic Pixie Dream Waitress Sherrie (Tess Soltau), but his shot at both is thwarted first by his own shyness and then by a cooler, richer guy, rock star Stacee Jaxx (Ace Young). Will true love prevail? What do you think? Meanwhile, cool old dude Dennis (Gene Weygandt) is on the verge of losing his beloved rock club to a VERY UNCOOL out-of-town developer (Jeff Howell) who wants to turn the Sunset Strip into a strip mall. Will he succeed? What do you think? This plot is paint-by-numbers on purpose, using eighties movie tropes from dream sequences to slow claps to set an era vibe and satirize the conventions of those movies and of jukebox musicals alike.
The cast is great from top to bottom, starting with Nick Druzbanski as narrator and sound technician Lonny. Interacting with the audience, flirting shamelessly and clowning his way through the show, Druzbanski does the nearly unthinkable, playing a role that was written and designed as a vehicle for Jack Black without ever once going for the way Jack Black would deliver any line or bit. His chemistry with the perpetually harried and stressed Gene Weygandt is great, with Weygandt usually (but not always) the straight man to Druzbanski's clown. (In an interesting look at how culture has progressed over the past ten years since the show premiered, Lonny and Dennis are portrayed pretty openly as being bisexual lovers in this staging, while the Tenacious D-inspired pairing in the Broadway staging was merely a series of jokey "are they or aren't they" flirtations. It's 2019. They are... and if you watch closely, you can see the two of them ogling guys and girls alike during crowd scenes.)
Justin Matthew Sargent makes a great fresh-faced Drew, believable both as the hard rocker power-screaming his way through impressive sustains on "Oh Sherrie" and "Cum On Feel the Noize," and as the Peter Parker-esque dweeb trying his hardest to impress a girl out of his league. As that girl, Tess Soltau totally embraces both the heart and the goofiness of the script, playing Sherrie- a blatant parody of classic "video vixen" bimbos and Eighties porn stereotypes- as a human being and not a tongue-in-cheek blow-up doll. The showiest part of their love triangle is our celebrity guest, American Idol and Broadway star Ace Young. Young jumps head-on into the gonzo character of Stacee Jaxx, who has a weird Lizard King charisma but seemingly can't go a single sentence without sexually harassing or groping the nearest woman. Though he's got the voice you remember from TV, it's clear Young, like Clay Aiken earlier this season, is having a great time poking holes in his image. Jaxx may be a superstar, but he's also both a creep and kind of a pathetic loser- after his first few scenes of vampiric charm, we immediately begin to see the drunken, dull-witted ape-man beneath the pleather pants and taco-style cowboy hat. There aren't many genuine rock stars who would sign up to puke, get kicked in the balls, and molest a stuffed llama onstage every night, so kudos to Ace Young for doing these hilarious, terrible things for us.
In the supporting roles, Pittsburgh royalty Jeff Howell's stiff-upper-lip German Hertz is very funny, complete with very Teutonic readings of Jefferson Starship and REO Speedwagon songs. But it's hard to compete with Nathan Salstone for scene-stealing. Playing Hertz's extremely emotional and expressive son, Salstone prances, squeals and Jazzercises his way through the show, laughing and weeping with abandon, with every entrance and exit getting the audience to eat out of the palm of his hand. Playing his friend and social conscience Regina, Tiffany Tatreau shows off a fantastic pop-punk voice and tons of energy, though she does not get to do some of the quick-change comedy that role is usually associated with.
My only caveat about the show as it stood on opening night was that the sound for Act 1 was relatively muddy, with actors' mics not toggling on and off and band's sound levels varying wildly, often drowning out the action on stage entirely. That said, opening nights are opening nights, and I have no doubt that audiences since then have rocked at appropriate levels to each individual song. Be sure to stay for curtain call, when the band finally gets to really jam out for the first time.