When I was first asked to attend Rock of Ages, I thought I couldn’t say no loud enough. First of all, it is a jukebox musical, a type of show that I have hated since that Beach Boys debacle a few years back. Second, I consider the eighties my lost decade. I was newly married, having and raising babies. I barely paid attention to popular music. Unless a song was a lullaby or from Raffi or the The Elephant Show, I wasn’t listening to it. And third, it has songs by Journey. Journey on Broadway, really? The theater snob in me would have none of that.
My son arranged to go with someone else, but when his friend backed out at the last minute, I reluctantly agreed to take the extra ticket. I dragged my feet getting ready, dreading the long train ride into the city and anticipating that I’d react to the music the same way that I did when I heard the first strains of one of those Abba songs in Mamma Mia! — by sinking into my seat and wishing I was somewhere else. I did not know that I was in for a night of surprises and that this show would be the most fun I’ve had on Broadway since The Producers.
As an event, Rock of Ages is not treated like a typical night of New York theater. It is more like an arena concert, with drinks served in the aisles, stage lighting, a backup band, and little LED flashlights to take the place of lighters that normally would be waved in the air during power ballads and encores. You know from the minute you sit down that you are in for something completely different. It is a show meant for mass appeal –- not the usual stuffy or elite theater crowd, but for guys and gals who lived during the heyday of arena rock and for the teens who have learned the songs from endless Guitar Hero or Rock Band sessions. It may be seen as a little too risqué for young teens, so be warned. It is, after all, a story about sex, drugs, and rock and roll (with heavy emphasis on the sex).
The story is a weak contrivance of boy meets girl, full of the usual clichés and characters associated with arena rock and the 80’s. Drew, the rock wannabe (Constantine Maroulis of American Idol fame) falls for Sherrie (Amy Spanger), the naïve girl from the sticks who has run away to the big bad city to become a star. The other characters include a former hippie who now runs the rock club dive on the Strip, an authoritarian entrepreneur who wants to spoil everyone’s fun, his effete son trying to learn the business, and a stereotypical social activist in a prairie skirt, socks, and earth sandals out to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood.
The whole concoction is played for laughs, with a breakout performance by Mitchell Jarvis who, as Lonny, the second in command at the rock club and unofficial narrator of the play, aptly channels his inner Jack Black — complete with raised eyebrow and impish grin — and provides some of the biggest laughs of the evening. Lonny knows the story is a joke and unconventionally breaks the fourth wall a few times during the performance to mock and laugh along with the audience.
I found myself not only laughing at the jokes and the silly story, but at the costumes as well. There were a few nervous little “what was I thinking” moments, like the rock chicks first appearing on stage wearing the high heels and lace stockings that were popular at the time, and the crazy silhouette formed when Sherrie, with her Farrah Fawcett hair, appeared in a short skirt, boots, and jacket with shoulder pads out to there. One of the highlights of the second act is a duet of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” which is performed by Wesley Taylor and Lauren Molina in sparkly spandex unitards and jazz shoes, á la Deney Terrio’s Dance Fever. Even the props drew laughs, whether it was a For Dummies book on musical theater (remember jazz hands?) or a 4-pack of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers that had everyone old enough to remember in stitches.
The biggest surprise was that I didn’t hate the music. I found myself tapping my feet and singing along as if these tunes from my lost years just lingered on the edge of memory, waiting for the spectacle of the stage to bring them to life. These classic songs by such artists as Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, Poison, Whitesnake, and yes, even Journey, were given new and original meanings by clever staging, inspired choreography, and outstanding vocals. The show is filled with show-stopping performances that seem to top one another as the story progresses to its inevitable happy, but unexpected, ending.
It has been a long time since I have wanted to see a show a second time, but I will see Rock of Ages again. “Don’t Stop Believin’” that this show will have even the hard-nosed theater snob in you singing, “I Wanna Rock!”Powered by Sidelines