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Rock of Ages

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Rock of Ages
Constantine Maroulis, Kelli Barrett, Will Swenson, Lauren Molina, and the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Let's start by answering the most obvious questions about Rock of Ages, the new jukebox musical by Chris D'Arienzo that just opened at New World Stages.

1. The genre is 1980s rock. Not pop, rock. The real stuff. The kind willfully perpetuated by bands like Whitesnake, Journey, and Foreigner.

2. Yes, it's loud. Very loud. From the moment you step into the theater until the moment you leave. The ear-melting amplification and blaring pre-show, post-show, and intermission soundtracks guarantee this.

3. Yes, there's a story. Yes, there are characters. No, they're in no way complex.

4. No, the show shouldn't be a good time. But yes, it is.

5. Finally, and most importantly: It's smarter than Mamma Mia!, but not as slick as Jersey Boys.

Does that cover the basics? Good. Because despite being a full-length (two hours and 20 minutes) and inordinately large (14 cast members, not counting swings) Off-Broadway musical, Rock of Ages never takes itself much farther. If it did, it would be destined to implode with a ferocity that might swallow up half of Midtown. But because D'Arienzo and director Kristin Hanggi understand the limitations of the format and the songs they've chosen to fill it, that's never a serious fear. This frees up them and you to just sit back for the ultimate in escapist '80s entertainment.

The hair (designed by Tom Watson) is huge (one shudders to consider the production's mousse budget), the costumes (Gregory Gale) are outlandishly alt-retro, and the scenic design (Beowulf Boritt, with assistance from projection designer Zachary Borovay's dynamic LED backdrop) is gleefully materialistic. But they're only that way because the era demands it - they never overwhelm, with either their earnestness or their parody, the presentation of some two dozen terrific songs from the last decade in which the word "rock" actually meant something.

As for how they fit into the plot, don't worry about that. They don't really; they only ornament, with varying degrees of success, a conventional love story between aspiring musician Drew (Constantine Maroulis, of American Idol fame) and aspiring actress Sherrie (Kelli Barrett). They meet in Dupree's Bourbon Room, the club that's the "Acid Epicenter" of Los Angeles and is where (so we're told) a lot of great bands got their start. But, see, it's being threatened from this German developer named Hertz...

No, no, no! It doesn't matter! Hertz (Paul Schoeffler) and his son Franz (Wesley Taylor) could be anyone - they're only in the construction business because it gives everyone a chance to sing Starship's "We Built This City." Just like Stacee Jaxx (Will Swenson), the front man for the super-popular band Arsenal, is an emotional rebel because it lets him wrap his vocal cords around Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" before he steals Sherrie away from Drew and his band becomes the one that can save the Bourbon Room from...

Sorry - the story is too obligatory to waste space on. At least D'Arienzo had the good sense to not take it seriously; the fundamental flaw with most musicals of the Mamma Mia! school is that they want to pass themselves off as responsible fun without the responsibility. A knowing lark such as this one, which riffs on Jersey Boys, jazz hands, and, in a moment of stunning surreality, Ibsen and Chekhov, can be absolved of every obligation but to send its audiences screaming into ecstasy.

If you're even a moderate fan of '80s rock, this show does that. The songstack is practically ideal, nicely balanced between artists and sounds, and never boring or predictable. Music director Matt Beck and supervisor-arranger-orchestrator Ethan Popp have given the score a cunningly consistent sound. Kelly Devine's smoking club choreography always finds the appropriate visuals for every musical moment.

And the performers are well-matched with their almost roles, Maroulis's soft exterior is a fitting contrast to his razor-edged voice, Barrett's overly made-up beauty is strongly representation of Sherrie's inner turmoil, and Swenson is a riot as a hyper-extended version of the free-living Berger he played in Hair in Central Park this summer. Schoeffler, Taylor, Lauren Molina as a hippie protestor determined to save the Bourbon Room, Mitchell Jarvis and Adam Dannheiser as the club's managers, and Michele Mais as a wisdom-spewing strip-hall madam (don't ask) are all first-rate.

So, finally, is Rock of Ages, within its own modest spectrum: It knows what it is and who it's for, and makes no apologies. It's so sure of itself, in fact, that its ushers hand out (battery-powered) lighters at the beginning of the show, fully aware audience members will know when to wave them in the air. And so they do. Even without the props, Rock of Ages would never set the theater on fire, but it comes close enough to ensure you'll be pleasantly trapped in the heat of the moment.


Rock of Ages
New World Stages / Stage 1, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge