By normal "theater critic" standards, there's a lot not to like about Rock of Ages. The show is slight, contrived, low-brow to the maximum, and devoid of any significant plot, character development, or forward-moving songs. But, it doesn't matter. This musical succeeds by not taking itself seriously, providing a rockin' good time, and being very funny, even if you're embarrassed by what you're laughing at. The national tour currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati boasts a first-rate cast led by original Broadway cast lead (and "American Idol" vet) Constantine Maroulis.
The paper-thin and frequently random book for by Chris D'Arienzo centers on a predictable 1980s romance between a wannabe rocker named Drew and wannabe actress Sherrie. The two meet at the Bourbon Room, an Los Angeles club where bands play in hopes of launching their careers. There are numerous other characters and subplots, but they're really not worth explaining. All of it is meant simply to create a humorous and fun framework on which to hang a plethora of '80s rock songs by the likes of Poison, Styx, Journey, Whitesnake, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Bon Jovi and others. For those of us who were teenagers two decades ago, these songs are nostalgic, just as the songs in Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys are for our older siblings and parents respectively. Unlike those other jukebox musicals, however, Rock of Ages doesn't try to be more than just a silly rock concert badly masquerading as a musical. At certain points, the characters acknowledge that they're in a musical (as happens quite frequently nowadays), but even then humorously show their ignorancemaking a reference to Andrew Lloyd Sondheim, for example.
As Drew, Constantine Maroulis vocally handles both the softer ballads and the angst-ridden "screamer" anthems well, and gives the character some much-needed dimension in the acting department as well. Rebecca Faulkenberry (Sherri) captures both the eagerness and disappointment of a newcomer to the big city, and provides a varied and colorful vocal interpretation of her songs. All of the supporting players do fine, but making the biggest impact are Sean Jenness (hilarious as Lonny), Travis Walker (Franz), Casey Tuma (Regina), and Mig Ayesa (Stacee Jaxx).
Director Kristin Hanggi keeps the action moving at a brisk pace and never lets much time go by without presenting something funny (usually playing to the lowest possible denominator) or a new song to make us forget about the barely-there book. The choreography by Kelly Devine is period appropriate and fun, but certainly nothing new. An extremely authentic looking and sounding on-stage band is led by Brandon Ethridge, though it's the guitar solos most audience members will remember.
The aptly seedy sets (Beowulf Boritt), glam rock costumes (Gregory Gale), concert venue style lighting (Jason Lyons) are all what they need to be, but its Zak Borovay's projections that provide the most ingenious design and biggest bang for their buck.
As someone who graduated from high school in 1988, I'm obviously part of the target audience for Rock of Ages, and I must admit that I had more non-theater friends asking me if I had a date for this show than any since Wicked. And, though my taste in music will always be for William Finn, Jason Robert Brown, and Stephen Sondheim rather than Whitesnake or Bon Jovi, I have to say that I enjoyed the show (even if I wasn't one of the hundreds of people waving their fake lighters in the air).
Rock of Ages continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through November 7. 2010. For tickets, call 513-621-2787. Visit www.rockofagesmusical.com for more information on the tour.