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Rock of Ages

Constantine Maroulis, Kelli Barrett, and Will Swenson shine in this hugely enjoyable jukebox musical of songs from the 1980s.

Constantine Maroulis and Kelli Barrett
in Rock of Ages
(© Joan Marcus)
Making a jukebox book musical out of the hair-band hits of the 1980s may sound like a joke, but the funniest thing about Rock of Ages, currently blasting the roof off New World Stages, is that it has as much covert affection for musicals as it does for the arena rock of yesteryear. As the song says, it don't mean nothing but a good time.

The hugely enjoyable musical has the good sense to riotously spoof itself, tongue always in cheek. The tone is set by our mullet-haired narrator (played with infectious energy by Mitchell Jarvis) who confesses he's no "Andrew Lloyd Sondheim" and that he wanted to explore deep and insightful theater -- but instead is narrating a show with poop jokes and Whitesnake songs.

The plot is so predictable and clichéd it could be condensed into a music video, but the show doesn't need anything more than a well-worn story to do the trick. There's a boy (Constantine Maroulis) who dreams of being a rock star and a girl (Kelli Barrett) who's left her small town to be a movie star. Their paths cross at a legendary rock club on the Sunset Strip just as the city's corrupt Mayor (Brian Munn) targets it for demolition. A bad-boy rock superstar (Will Swenson) is reluctantly enlisted to save the club, but is soon putting the moves on the girl. It all works out exactly as you want and expect it to in the end but with a few sly surprises thanks to bookwriter Chris D'Arienzo. (You won't ever hear REO Speedwagon's classic "Can't Fight This Feeling" again without cracking a smile.)

The show's songstack, which includes power ballads and rock anthems that will be familiar to anyone who lived through the era, is almost always up to the task of musicalizing the plot while putting nostalgia in the air. Songs such as Extreme's "More Than Words" and Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is" make for natural 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" transition effectively into crowd-pleasing production numbers under Kristin Hanngi's direction. Indeed, less than a handful of the show's 30 songs feel unduly forced into musical theater duties. Better still, the music, performed by an on-stage band under Ethan Popp, retains the credible sonic punch of the original well-known recordings and happily avoids sounding like weak Broadwayized versions. Make no mistake, this show rocks and it rocks loud.

A few of the supporting players have less than enough to work with to strongly register, even by the show's cartoon standards, while Wesley Taylor, in a smaller swishy role, threatens to steal the show. As for the leads, Maroulis and Barrett are both enormously endearing performers with credible rock vocal chops, and make an ideal romantic couple for this material. Swenson, last seen in Hair, is deliciously outlandish as the spoiled, flamboyant rock superstar who comes between the kids. His outrageously hilarious performance steals clichés from Axl Rose, David Lee Roth, and several other real-life rockers, but he ultimately delivers a fresh, delightful comic creation in perfect keeping with the tone of the show.

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