Rock of Ages
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
April 14, 2009
If you are a musical theater purist, someone who thinks the jukebox musical is the death of the form, someone who hates the American Idol-ization of Broadway, or just someone who hates the hair, outfits, lingo, and face-melting music of the 1980s, it is best that you stay far, far away from the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where Rock of Ages, the jukebox musical that celebrates the hair, outfits, lingo, and face-melting music of the 1980s, starring American Idol's Constantine Maroulis, has transferred after a successful run last fall at New World Stages.
I wonder what it is about the show that makes so many musical theater enthusiasts offended. The drinks being served in the aisles? The fact that the love songs aren't in the same style as "You'll Never Get Away from Me" or "I'll Know"? The fact that our Jack Black-esque narrator desecrates the name Sondheim by adding "Andrew Lloyd" before it?
Rock of Ages is almost as conventional a musical as conventional musicals get. A geeky guy with big dreams meets a sexy girl with dreams just as big. They fall in love; she's entranced by a more successful guy, gets together with him, loses it all, and ultimately ends up with the geeky guy, with whom she's meant to be.
The girl, Sherry Christian (referential naming which paves the way for both Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" and Journey's "Oh, Sherrie"), wants to be an actress. The boy, Drew, is a toilet scrubber who wants to be a rocker. Their Jud Fry is Stacee Jaxx, departing lead-singer of Arsenal, a band that got its start in a bar, Dupree's Burbon Room. Dennis Dupree, the Master of the House, decides to reunite the group in order to try and save the club from destruction at the hands of German father-and-son land developers.
What Rock of Ages proves is that Damn Yankees' "High Enough" and REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight this Feeling" can sizzle with chemistry (yeah, chemistry!) just as much as "I'll Know." Chris D'Arienzo has crafted an old-fashioned musical with '80s music. While the script never even comes close to reaching the heights of Guys and Dolls or Gypsy, as far as jukebox musicals go, it has more heart and wit and is far more genuine than its jukebox predecessors, Lennon and Good Vibrations.
The problems with D'Arienzo's book are more apparent now than they were at New World. In the smaller, more intimate theater, the crucial wink that made it seem like everything was extemporaneous was very apparent. Following the three-block move, the wink has disappeared; what once seemed like it was improvised now seems overtly scripted. It occurred far too often that Mitchell Jarvis, as Lonny, our narrator, looked as though he had the desire to acknowledge the audience's reactions (beyond giving the hand sign of the horns), but was warned by the stage manager not to. If he was able to, the knowing wink, the "hey, we know that you know that we're making fun of ourselves" would be back.
With a few exceptions, the cast is exactly the same as at New World. Maroulis uses his deer-in-the-headlights acting style to his advantage. The full-of-himself swagger that he displayed on American Idol began to disappear during the New World run and is now totally gone. He's goofy and gawky and this music is his milieu. Jarvis is hilarious as Lonny, despite being unable to go all out. Broadway mainstays Lauren Molina and Paul Schoeffler (as Regina, a lesbian protester, and Hertz, the German developer, respectively) are very good, as are Michele Mais and Wesley Taylor in supporting roles. Katherine Tokarz makes a very strong impression as the featured dancer.
New additions Amy Spanger as Sherrie and James Carpinello as Stacee Jaxx are just as strong as their predecessors, Kelli Barrett and Will Swenson. (Swenson, incidentally, left the production after having the most enviable choice to make: whether to follow this show or Hair to Broadway.)
The design is first rate; Beowulf Boritt has had the luxury to deck out the entire space with a set that extends far past the proscenium and through the theater. Gregory Gale's tacky costumes are perfect and Jason Lyons's lighting is exactly what you'd expect at a concert. Peter Hylenski's keeps the volume at ear-piercing levels, as they should be.
Problems? A few. The sound fluctuates during the dialogue sequences, so a lot is lost. Also, a lot of the songs are cut to allow dialogue into them or are just truncated. The music is the star; we want to hear these songs in their entirety, uninterrupted.
Kristin Hanggi and Kelly Devine's frenetic direction and choreography suit the material well. Placing the band, under the baton of Henry Aronson, at center stage is a smart idea. Lead guitarist Joel Hoekstra closes the show by playing the final lines of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" with his hands and teeth. And it sounds great.
Rock of Ages may not be the most sophisticated musical around, but who cares? It doesn't purport or set out to be. The next step, reportedly in the Fall of 2009, is the film, to be adapted and directed by D'Arienzo. If the audience reaction to the stage show is any indication, the film could be a huge hit.