“I wanted to explore deep and insightful theater, but instead I’m narrating a show with poop jokes and Whitesnake songs” wisecracks the infectious, twinkle-eyed Mitchell Jarvis as Lonny, the mullet-haired Narrator of Rock of Ages, the deliriously entertaining 1980s hair-band jukebox musical now blasting the doors off the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. As the song goes, it don’t mean nothin’ but a good time. But it’s also one of the funniest shows now on Broadway.
The plot is thin by design; yet the fun is all in the tongue-in-cheek telling thanks to Chris D’Arienzo’s gleefully spoofy book, Kristin Hanngi’s snappy direction, and lit-up performances from the entire cast. There’s Drew (Constantine Maroulis), a city boy with dreams of rock stardom, and Sherrie (Amy Spanger), a small-town girl who wants to be a movie star, whose paths cross at a legendary rock club where Lonny works on the Sunset Strip — and one that’s been targeted for demolition thanks to a father and son team of German real estate developers (Paul Schoeffler and Wesley Taylor).
Meanwhile, bad boy rock superstar Stacee Jaxx (James Carpinello) — a vision in skintight Spandex — is enlisted to save the club, but he is soon putting the moves on the girl and causing general havoc. It all works out exactly as you want — and expect — it to in the end, but with a few sly, hilarious surprises. (You won’t ever hear REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” again without cracking a smile.) Apart from the disappointment that the minor character of Justice (Michele Mais) the proprietress of a strip club that temporarily employs Sherrie, remains more like a cliché than a spoof of one, the book is a campy treat.
Although the book effectively gets the audience in the mood for a party, its biggest accomplishment is how smoothly it puts the show’s well-known songstack to viable narrative use. Songs such as Extreme’s “More Than Words” and Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” are effortlessly made into stageworthy character ballads, while rock anthems such as Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and Quiet Riot’s “Cum On Feel The Noize” are transformed into crowd-pleasing production numbers and further enlivened by Kelly Devine’s often witty choreography. Performed by an onstage band under Ethan Popp’s musical direction, the music retains the sonic punch of the original hit songs and doesn’t sound like weak Broadwayized versions.
The cast is perfectly in tune with the cartoon spirit of the material. Spanger is a vivacious delight in rock chick with a heart of gold mode, soaring high with her power ballads and putting a comic spin on even her most benign dialogue. Carpinello is deliciously over the top as the bad boy rock star. From his first on-stage scene being interviewed by a hilariously nervous starstruck reporter (Katherine Tokarz) he gives the audience permission to laugh uproariously with him at the character’s overblown ego and self-involvement. Taylor turns his smaller, swishy role into comic gold; his second-act number with Lauren Molina, irreverently funny as a hippie protester, nearly stops the show.
Best of all is Maroulis, who anchors the show with a sweet, aw-shucks characterization that makes it impossible not to root for him. Maroulis’ obvious stage chops might surprise those who know him only from American Idol, but his authentic rock vocals will not.