Review: ROCK OF AGES Burns Down the House at The Lamp Theater

Split Stage continues to provide a haven for adult-oriented semi-pro theater

By: Jun. 14, 2022

Review: ROCK OF AGES Burns Down the House at The Lamp Theater At the risk of sounding like a gatekeeper or an anti-unionist, I had a deep dread last summer when Equity announced its plan and its push for all working actors across the country to unionize, granting Equity membership to anyone who would seek it. This seemed likely to pose an existential threat to the "semi-pro theatres" so prevalent in Pennsylvania: technically community theatres by definition, but casting mostly working profesional actors who are non-union and paying at least a stipend to the performers. Many of my favorite companies fall in this mold or employ a hybrid model to cast both Equity and non-union actors together: Saint Vincent Summer Theatre, Prime Stage, Stage Right (the Greensburg and Pittsburgh ones, no relation), Westmoreland Performing Arts and Split Stage. Thankfully, the sky has not fallen: a number of deserving and hard-working actors have indeed unionized quicker than they would have otherwise, but the majority of the semi-pro actors and theatres have remained unscathed.

Split Stage, one such company, has continued to bring edgier or less-often-produced shows to Westmoreland County. Though it's hard to call Rock of Ages, which has had a motion picture and is now a high school musical perennial, lesser-produced, it does fit the company's edgier, ballsier brand well. Comedian Chris D'Arienzo's libretto for the extremely meta spoof of jukebox musicals is still the best jukebox script by a longshot.

The plot, overly convoluted by design, parodies eighties movie comedies with a "let's save the rock venue" stream of cliches that get mercilessly savaged. Wannabe rocker Drew (Gabe DeRose) can't seem to make a love connection with nubile waitress Sherrie (Raegan Hochman), while German real estate developer Hertz (Hank Fodor) and his effeminate son Franz (Caleb Feigles) attempt to turn the Sunset Strip into a strip mall. All this mixes with a stream of colorful characters like a hair metal rock god (Michael David Stoddard), a social reformer hippie (Clair Ivy Stoller) and pair of chaotic-bisexual club owners (Josh Reardon and Bill Elder).

Directed by company founders Nate Newell and Rob Jessup, the show is a wicked good time: loud, silly, sexy and dumb in a smart way. (A lot of this is due to the production, but a lot is just baked into Rock of Ages as a show; it's almost actor-proof in how tight its concept is.) The cast is full of local favorites from a number of companies: Stage Right, Theatre Factory, Greensburg Civic, PMT and a number of additional companies are all represented within the cast. This is a good sign, as the sometimes fractious divide between small theatre companies has been showing evidence of healing in the last few years. As the lead couple, Gabe DeRose and Raegan Hochman have fantastic voices and perfect optimistic deadpan; so much of the show's humor revolves around these two characters never realizing that they are ridiculous, cliche or absurd. Josh Reardon and Bill Elder come close to stealing the show as the pair of rock and roll stoner bros who appear to be in an open relationship with each other. And of course, Courtney Harkins, last year's BroadwayWorld Pittsburgh choice for best performer in the Pittsburgh area, rocks the house with her iconic voice as strip club owner Justice.

But if anyone really owns this production, it's Michael David Stoddard as Stacee Jaxx. Essentially a parody of Bret Michaels's hedonism and self-seriousness, Jaxx is every eighties rock star cliche in one. He's played very straight in the Broadway production, while Tom Cruise infamously played a truly loony version of the character in the film version. Stoddard steers it down the middle of the two interpretations, leaning into a grossness, weirdness and self-deprecating patheticness that can only be described as "Will Forte-like." Again and again, the mask of rock star sex god slips off, and the weird little man underneath peaks through, until the very end when the facade is detonated and we see Stacee Jaxx in all his pathetic anti-glory. Let's also give a shoutout to podcaster Emily Kane in the minor role of reporter Constance; while Constance's brief scene is usually played as a sex-starved music-video bimbo enthralled by Stacee Jaxx's presence, Kane instead plays the role with a dour Daria affect, thoroughly unimpressed with Jaxx's nonsense and sex appeal. It's not just a concession to the MeToo era, it's probably funnier.

I don't know for sure whether there were any liberties taken for modern sensibilities, or whether the script has been adjusted with time; the original version contains a few jokes that come across as racist or transphobic in today's culture. Most of that content has been dropped from this production. (Similarly, almost every production today makes Lonnie and Dennis a couple officially, while the original stage show toed the line of "no homo" as closely as it could with an are-they-or-aren't-they running gag.) That's not to say the show is in good taste, but at least now it's a parody of excess and misogyny- especially the character of Sherrie, who if we weren't laughing at the music video and eighties film cliches she embodies and spoofs, would probably be an offensive "dumb slutty blonde" archetype. Rock of Ages excels when it sets up these archetypes and then demolishes them with the sledgehammer of comedy, and Split Stage's production is a whole musical theatre wrecking crew.

2023 Regional Awards


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