I’d like to start this review with the wise words of the 80’s musical legend Warrant:
Heaven isn’t too far away...
And seriously, it’s not. It’s currently housed at the Bank of America Theater in the form of Rock of Ages, a sing-your-heart-out rock musical based on all your favorite hair-band ballads. Featuring a soundtrack of hits from Journey, Whitesnake, Poison, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, and more; whether you’re old enough to remember the 80s music scene or just wish you were, Rock of Ages is the musical for you.
Rock of Ages brings the audience back to the Reagan era, into the lingerie-strung walls of the Bourbon Room on LA’s Sunset Strip. Here we meet our fourth-wall-breaking narrator, Lonny (Patrick Lewallen), his bar-owning friend Dennis (Nick Cordero)—who bears a strange resemblance to Weird Al Yankovic— and Drew “Call me Wolfgang” (Constantine Maroulis—the sexiest Greek singer/actor since John Stamos), a wannabe rocker who’s currently stuck working at the Bourbon room as a bar-back, cleaning the bathrooms and carting bags of vomit out to the dumpsters. To break up the boys-club, there’s a cast of big-haired, scantily clad women opening the show with a high-energy version of Quiet Riot’s “Cum on, Feel the Noize” that got the audience members laughing, clapping, and on their feet, dancing in the balcony.
Soon into the show, Lonny pulls out a reference book, Musicals for Dummies, and informs the audience that no musical is complete without a good love story... and right on cue, in walks Sherrie (Rebecca Faulkenberry), a Kansas native hitting the big streets of LA to pursue her acting career. She walks into the bar and immediately catches Drew’s attention. As they make awkward small talk, we learn that Sherrie’s just a small town girl, living in a lonely world, and Drew is a city boy, born and raised in… you guessed it, south Detroit. (Don’t worry, before the end of the night, they’ll take a midnight train going anywhere.)
The story moves on—Drew’s trying to make it big as a rocker, while Sherrie’s trying to land an acting gig. Their fast-track romance hits a speed-bump by the name of rock-star Stacee Jaxx (MiG Ayesa), lead singer of “Arsenal,” who uses his star power and some smooth talking to, ahem, “romance” Sherrie in the men’s restroom. Drew watches, forlorn, as the girl of his dreams slips through his fingers. At the same time, Hertz and Franz, a German father-son team of urban planners, come to meet with the mayor (Sure) to tell him to close down the bars on Sunset Strip (Sure) to make the town more clean and efficient (Of course). The mayor agrees, because money talks, despite the futile efforts of his shrill-voiced secretary (Casey Tuma), who reminds the mayor that LA was built on dreams of fame and celebrity… using, of course, some familiar words: “We built this city on rock and roll!”
Sadly, the town’s communal dreams of fame aren’t enough to make it in the world, and before long, the bubble bursts for our loveable characters on the Strip—the Bourbon Room is closing, Sherrie gives up auditions in favor of a stripper pole, and Drew’s rocker dreams fall to the wayside as he signs with an agent and winds up in a Tiger-Beat caliber boy band. The story moves on with some memorable numbers: the strippers (pardon me, “exotic dancers”) sell their trade to the tune of Journey’s “Any way you want it” and Joan Jett’s “I hate myself for loving you.” Early in the second act, Franz (Travis Walker) steals the show with an in-your-face rendition of Pat Benatar’s “Hit me with your best shot,” an unexpected showstopper that left the audience in hysterics.
As the 80s hits pump and the cast jumps and shakes through some high-energy choreography, you’ll have almost as much fun watching the audience as you will the show: dancing, singing, and power-arms aren’t generally a part of the Broadway-In-Chicago experience, but in this context, they’re perfectly appropriate. At times, it feels as though we’re all a part of the show, rocking out to the band at the Bourbon Room’s last night on the Strip. (The final hours before the bar’s closing, of course, are accompanied by “The Final Countdown.”)
As all good musicals should, Rock of Ages wraps up its story in a pretty little package. Drew leaves his boy band and Sherrie stops stripping. Franz and Hertz decide not to close the Bourbon Room, and the good times roll on—ending in a high-energy rendition of Journey’s overplayed but ever-loveable hit, “Don’t Stop Believing,” where we learn that Drew and Sherrie not only find love—they have a baby (in the bar, nonetheless!). The show ends with the whole theater on its feet, dancing and singing and having nothing but a good time.” It’s silly, it’s happy, but most of all—it’s damn fun. And you’re just glad to be a part of it.
On my way out of the theater last night, as the crowd laughed and sang and chatted about the show, I heard a woman remark to her husband, “Look at all these people under 30! None of them even understood this show—they’re too young for all these references.” And in some ways, I guess she’s right. We Reagan-era babies didn’t experience these songs the first time around—we were too busy watching Sesame Street and learning our shapes to over-process our hair and rock a Van Halen t-shirt with our acid wash jeans. But luckily, we 20-somethings were born on the cusp of the media generation. 1980’s culture was as much a part of our adolescence as it was for those who lived it: thanks to Vh1’s “I Love the 80’s” and the undying popularity of movies like “Back to the Future” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” we grew up loving the same songs that Generation X did. For those of us who came of age alongside the internet, the entire catalog of Foreigner’s hits or Bon Jovi’s ballads soon became available at the press of a button, allowing us to easily make the good old days our own.
So, I guess the moral of the story is this: Rock of Ages is an awesome, high-energy show. Its familiar soundtrack and pop-culture references make it a good choice even for those who don’t like traditional musical theater: whatever your age, if you like 80’s hair band music, you’ll love Rock of Ages. Check it out. (And soon! The run is almost over!)
Well, that’s it for me. I’ll leave you with some words to live by from character Stacee Jaxx: “Bon Jovi, in French, means Good Jovi.” Indeed it does, Stacee… indeed it does.