What can I tell you about Rock of Ages, which sent a nearly-packed Benedum into howls of appreciation at the curtain?
I’m likely the least suited person in the world to write about this show. Mainly because I’ve never been a fan of rock music, and particularly of hard rock music. So although I’m the right age to have this “jukebox musical” take me on a nostalgia trip back to the eighties, I don’t really have the kind of associations with the music or culture that would evoke in me that sentimental glow (I never even watched MTV, I’m a little embarrassed to confess).
But I was clearly a minority among the two thousand plus audience members who were having a much better time than I rockin’ out to the music of bands like Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Steve Perry, Poison, and others. As the saying goes, if you like this sort of thing, well – this is exactly the sort of thing you’re going to like.
The rock songs are strung together into a deliberately dippy plot that involves an insecure wannabe rock star Drew (Justin Matthew Sargent) who falls in love with a newly-arrived-from-the-heartland aspiring actress Sherrie (Tess Soltau). They both work at a bar in Los Angeles where famous rocker Stacee Jaxx (Ace Young) launched his career many years ago. The bar is now threatened by a gentrification effort led by the German developer Hertz Klinemann (Jeffrey Howell) and his excitable son Franz (Nathan Salstone); bar owner Dennis Dupree (Gene Wygandt) seeks to raise the money to keep his bar afloat by bringing Jaxx back for a farewell concert. Jaxx wrecks Drew’s budding romance by hooking up with Sherrie and then getting her fired from the bar; Drew abandons Sherrie and struggles to find traction as a rock singer; Sherrie becomes a stripper to make ends meet; and the demolition of the LA strip proceeds apace, despite protest efforts by the comically named Regina (rhymes with vagina, hardeehar – played by Tiffany Tatreau). These complications all get resolved more or less how you’d expect.
The tone of the musical is over-the-top cartoonish, delivering a sendup of the eighties, the world of glam rock and MTV videos, and even of the genre of musical comedy itself. The latter is mainly accomplished by the show’s narrator, Lonny (the affable be-mulletted Nick Druzbanski), who at one point even brings on stage the program for the production and comments on his own headshot (this moment of metatheatrical reference was, for me, one of the freshest bits in the show). On opening night, it took a bit of time before the cast found the appropriate level of silliness and self-awareness for the material, but by the middle of the second act the show’s goofiness was in full swing.
The large ensemble features several vocal powerhouses. Sargent has the screech and howl of a rock lead singer down pat, and he achieves a superhuman feat of physical and vocal athleticism toward the end of the musical, in the number “Oh Sherrie,” when, after running around the stage for several minutes, he holds a note longer than most of us mere mortals can hold our breath. Tess Soltau is equally fabulous as Sherrie, with the range and flexibility to deliver songs as varied as “Sister Christian” and “Here I Go Again.” As the strip club owner Justice, Aurelia Williams delivers stunning renditions of both “Harden My Heart” and “Every Rose has its Thorn,” and Salstone and Tatreau brought down the house with their energetic “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.” The five-piece rock band, with Dan Peters as a charismatic lead guitarist, looks like the real deal, all tight pants, long hair, and bull’s-horn gesturing, and they sound quite authentic, too. In short, this production delivers in spades on a musical level. So if you like this sort of thing . . .