Rock of Ages Still Rocks
The classic rock jukebox musical returns to New York for its 10th anniversary.
The score of Rock of Ages holds a special place in my heart. This jukebox musical of radio rock hits from the '80s never fails to remind me of my early childhood, when Foreigner, Journey, and Bon Jovi provided the soundtrack to the adventures of my father's third-generation white Camaro, a too-cool-for-a-dad vehicle that exuded a whiff of cigarettes and teenage rebellion as we zipped around the suburbs of Cincinnati. It was a very happy way to grow up.
Naturally, I was thrilled when I learned that Rock of Ages was returning for an off-Broadway run at New World Stages to celebrate the 10 years that have passed since it opened on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. In that time, Rock of Ages has become a major(ly unloved) motion picture starring Tom Cruise, and productions have been mounted all over the world (I first saw it in Valletta, Malta). Does it still sizzle now that it has come home to "milk the last dollar from a beloved cash cow," as it is so aptly put by our narrator Lonny (Mitchell Jarvis, reprising his Broadway role)?
Rock of Ages may seem like a hard rock has-been in cell 3 of New World Stages, but in many ways, it's living through its golden years. The most glaring sign of that is the inclusion of the Def Leppard song "Pour Some Sugar on Me" in the second act (the band's unwillingness to participate was a running gag in the original). It now underscores a scene in the exotic Venus Club, where it fits perfectly into this story about arriving in the City of Angels with a suitcase full of dreams, only to end up a sunset stripper — at least for the time being.
As with most jukebox musicals, the plot is ancillary to the music, but for those interested: Drew (usually CJ Eldred, but I saw understudy Michael Mahany) was born and raised in south Detroit, but he's come to Los Angeles to become a rock star. He takes a job as a barback at Hollywood's legendary Bourbon Room, owned and operated by Dennis Dupree (Matt Ban, with a voice like an internal combustion engine fired by Jim Beam). Drew falls in love with Sherrie (Kirsten Scott), but she friend-zones him in favor of a fling with arrogant rocker Stacee Jaxx (PJ Griffith). Stacee has returned to the Bourbon Room to play a farewell concert with his band, Arsenal, which Dennis hopes will spare the club from the wrecking ball of a greedy German real-estate developer (Tom Galantich). If Dennis had just walked around the block and asked Cher, she would have told him all about air rights.
The remix of clichés in Chris D'Arienzo's book seems perfectly appropriate for a score that could double as a karaoke playlist: "We Built This City," "We're Not Gonna Take It," and "Wanted Dead or Alive" all occupy the same musical — and that's just in the first act! It's enough to make you want to sing along, and many in the audience do: One of the joys of watching this show after a decade of momentum is the cult following it has gained, so that seeing it is akin to attending a viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
A cadre of skilled professionals onstage lead the amateurs in the audience: Scott and Mahany have pipes to shake the heavens, and they absolutely soar on "High Enough." As gentlemen's club proprietress Justice, Jeannette Bayardelle also impresses, showing off riffs that would make Simon Cowell blush. Tying it all together is Jarvis's ever-cartoonish Lonny: Incorrigibly ribald and desperately mugging for a laugh, he's like the Emcee from Cabaret on whippets.
Kristin Hanggi's vibrant, never-too-serious direction and Kelly Devine's high-energy choreography help the show go down like a shot of Jack (which, incidentally, is the ideal pregame tipple). In addition to the original director and choreographer, this revival of Rock of Ages retains all of the designers from the Broadway run: Gregory Gale's costumes offer an explosion of fringe and glitter, Tom Watson's wigs are teased to the gods, and scenic designer Beowulf Boritt fashions the Bourbon Room like a badass Cracker Barrel. It all looks stupendous under Jason Lyons's arena-rock lighting, resulting in a fist-pumping spectacle that can be enjoyed by old and new fans alike.
While Rock of Ages made me nostalgic for my own childhood, it also made me pine for a time when the jukebox musical seemed a lot more open to creativity and fun, before lawyers and greedy estates started cranking out revisionist bio-musicals that ask us to jettison our true recollections of the artists down the memory hole. Following in the irreverent footsteps of Mamma Mia!, but expanding its scope beyond just one band, Rock of Ages is a model for what jukebox musicals should be, yet so seldom are.