Rock of Ages
October 23 – 28, 2012
Southern Jubilee Auditorium
Listen to my live review from this morning on CBC Eyeopener at http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/2012/10/24/theatre-review-rock-of-ages/
Like it or not, jukebox musicals like Rock of Ages are here to stay and it’s not hard to see why. They work, because producers know there’s an audience out there that already loves the music. And if you’re already into the music, you’re halfway home to liking the musical. So if you’re a fan of 80’s Rock there’s a good chance you’ll be drawn to Rock of Ages, and with no less than twenty-eight classic rock tunes in the musical, you are certainly going to hear a lot nostalgic hits in this production. But with so many poor performances and a predictable and thin storyline, it’s a fair bet to say this show isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind.
At its core, Rock of Ages is a is a love letter to the good old days of the 1980’s Los Angeles Sunset Strip era – an era of arena rock and big hair and power ballads and yes, the dreaded acid wash. To be sure, the musical gets at this story through a fairly thin and spoofy narrative that leaves no cliché unturned. Narrated by Lonny, the Bourbon Room sound guy affecting a Jack Black persona that is just as obnoxious and not funny as Mr. Black himself, the show takes no time setting up the pieces of the musical.
Drew is a shy wanna-be rocker who sweeps the floors at the legendary Bourbon Room, a rocker club on the Sunset Strip. One day he meets Sherrie, an aspiring actress with dreams of Hollywood stardom and faster than they can trade hair products, the two are in love, but can’t bring themselves to tell each other. Then of course there’s the requisite bad guy in the show, a villainous greedy German developer bent on demolishing the Bourbon room to build commercial properties. In an attempt to save the club, Bourbon Room owner, Dennis, hatches a plan to save the place by hosting a monster farewell concert with legendary rockers Arsenal, while at the same time giving Drew his big break as the opening act.
However all sorts of things go wrong , not only might the club not be saved, Sherrie gets seduced by the Arsenal lead singer and Drew’s musical career takes left turn. It’s this tension that the rest of the musical deals as the actors continue to sing and dance and act their way through the story.
Well, not act so much. Rock of Ages is really all about the singing and dancing and surprisingly for a production of this caliber, the performances weren’t that great. Obviously this is an issue in any musical, but especially in a show like this where the enjoyment comes mainly from hearing those songs you know so well (and maybe love) and wanting them to sound like the originals or at least delivered with compelling, strong voices. However both the leads in Rock of Ages had major voice problems that interfered greatly with the show’s appeal. Dominique Scott as Drew, suffered from both a terribly weak voice and what can only be described as occasional tone deafness. When it was his turn to sing the Journey song ‘Oh Sherry’, there were so many wrong notes it was actually painful to listen to causing many patrons in my row to laugh in discomfort. Shannon Mullen as Sherrie had a stronger voice, but strong and flat is never a good thing. Especially when it botches songs like Pat Benetar’s ‘Harden my Heart’ which otherwise could have been a great number if it were not for Mullen’s dropped notes. There was one standout singer in the cast, one that got huge applause every time she sung a number and that was Amma Osei, who played a strip club owner. Hers was the only voice clear and powerful enough to stand up to the powerful energy of the rock songs and often during the show I found myself wishing everyone would just clear the stage and let her do her stuff. Other than that, everyone else in the cast was passable as individuals and far stronger as an ensemble. In fact the cast was terrific in all their collective song and dance numbers, particularly a fantastic rendition of Whitesnake’s ‘Here I Go Again” to close out the first act. But a warning should given everyone with young kids here, not only is the dialogue and story line intended for a distinctly mature audience, much of the dancing consists of writhing pelvic thrusts and stripper pole routines, so basically what you’d expect from a story about the Sunset Strip – but not what you’d want to necessarily take your children to see.
From a design angle, Rock of Ages looked the part. Practically all the action takes place inside the Bourbon club and they do a good job of creating a gritty rock and roll feel to the space. The walls are covered with posters and pictures and stray bras and panties that look like they were flung and forgotten. There’s the ubiquitous video screen that we see again and again on stage – it’s like you can’t have a show these days without projecting video – and here they show mostly LA backdrop images which is all fairly benign. What’s really fun about this set though is that there is a live band on stage at all times. In order to make this work, the musicians are cast as the backup band at the Bourbon, so they are always on stage ready to play. While it seemed to me that some of the music might have been recorded, I believe most of it was coming from the live band and while it’s VERY loud, they do sound great in an 80’s blow your eardrums off kinda way.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was singing along in my head to all the songs during the show, even though I have NO idea how I know all the words. All I can say is they must have unbeknownst to me seeped into my brain in the 1980’s and never left. But that alone doesn’t make a great show. I think if the performances were stronger I’d be able to squeak some affection out for this production, but as is, I was very happy to go back to 2012 by the end of the show .
For the guys and girls – You’re enjoyment will depend on how much you like this music. A colleague of mine described it as the Air Transat of shows – it gets you where you need to be, but you’re not sure it was worth the trip. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Again it’s all down to the music. The show is certainly high energy and fun to watch. But that might not be enough. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – If you like the music – you most likely already own it. I’d suggest staying home and have your own 1980’s listening party rather than wasting your night in the theatre seeing it done poorly. SKIP IT