Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 7, 2009
Rock of Ages Book by Chris D'Arienzo. Directed by Kristin Hanggi. Choreographed by Kelly Devine. Music supervision, srrangements & orchestrations by Ethan Popp. Set design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Gregory Gale. Lighting design by Jason Lyons. Soudn design by Peter Hylenski. Projection design by Zak Borovay. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Cast: Constantine Maroulis, Amy Spanger, Adam Dannheisser, Mitchell Jarvis, Michele Mais, Lauren Molina, Paul Schoeffler, Wesley Tayler, with James Carpinello, Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines, Ericka Hunter, Jeremy Jordan, Michael Minarik, Angel Reed, Katherine Tokarz, Andre Ward. Tad Wilson, Savannah Wise, Jeremy Woodard.
Simple: It never pretends to be anything it isn’t.
That’s rare in theatre as it is - despite naked honesty always being the supreme aim of the art - but it’s essentially nonexistent in this laziest of currently trendy stage genres. When the soft-centered but electrically staged Jersey Boys can masquerade as a razor-edged pop biography, and the empty-headed Mamma Mia! can prance about as the height of has-been sophistication, the traditional rules don’t apply. Those shows have succeeded by convincing large groups of audiences - and some critics - that they offer something they really don’t.
This show will have none of it, and it’s that confident individuality that makes it the smartest dumb show in town. If your eardrums can’t handle Peter Hylenski’s cranked-to-12 sound design, you’re out of luck - for better or worse, that’s what this music needs. If you don’t like the ushers handing out beer during the spoken scenes, you’ll just have to not drink one. And if the book offends you with its giddily glad-handed pointlessness and its full-frontal-assault references to other stage works and their cheesy ineffectuality, that shows you’re paying attention. Rock of Ages isn’t trying to be theatre the way Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys are. It’s just trying to be a good time.
Once you’re in that far, you’re gone. You don’t actually care about Sherrie’s approximate fling with retiring Axl Rose-ish superstar Stacee Jaxx (James Carpinello), and you certainly have no vested interest in whether the German developer Hertz (Paul Schoeffler) and his at-the-heel son Franz (Wesley Taylor) will wrest the Bourbon Room away from its owner Dennis (Adam Dannheisser) in a violent bid to gentrify the whole of the Sunset Strip. You can’t care about these things. They're not real. They’re not supposed to be. They’re just there to openly act as a vehicle for the next one-time radio blaster.
But because D’Arienzo always keeps this aim in mind, and all but the most momentary sentimentality carefully under wraps, it’s fuel enough. So it’s easier to accept the de rigueur hippie protestor Regina (Lauren Molina) singing Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” to protest Hertz and Franz’s plans. You know that Drew and Sherrie sing “Waiting for a Girl Like You” because they have to, and Franz sings “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” a la Pat Benetar because, uh, well, someone has to. D’Arienzo has established a dizzy, drunken world in which the sillier the justifications for everything, the more sense it all makes. However stupid everything else may be, that’s the sign of canny show-biz intelligence.
Don’t misunderstand: D’Arienzo’s book is not good - if it didn’t ape the inherent idiocies of pop-songbook musical catalog, it would have nothing to offer. Kristin Hanggi’s direction is efficient but inelegant, never afraid to take the dirtiest and roughest path to any joke. Kelly Devine’s choreography is big on legs - kicking, wrapping around poles, undulating - but short on invention or even creative tweaking of the era’s signature moves. Beowulf Boritt’s barroom-meets-billboard set (which depends on Zak Borovay’s witty projections for most of its character), Gregory Gale’s leather- and neon-freebasing costumes, Jason Lyons’s lights, and Tom Watson’s distressingly accurate hair and wigs are functional, but never as wild or as wonderful as you might hope for.
The same is true of the performances. Maroulis, of American Idol fame, is a born rocker with a pleasant personality and the strident pipes his songs require; Spanger’s off-center innocent manner is just right for the roller-coaster-moraled Sherrie; and the other supporting actors, who include Michele Mais as a strip-hall madam on hand to sing “Any Way You Want It” just when Sherrie needs the advice most, fulfill their base requirements without the attempts at excess that usually presage theatre excitement.
It’s as if everyone knows that a typical show’s “far enough” would be too far here; even the band, lend by Henry Aronson, only goes for broke in an eerily restrained way. But the pieces nonetheless come together in spite of themselves to create a show that’s highly watchable in the first act, downright enjoyable in the second act, and natural enough a dance party by the finale that the cast of the revival of Hair a few blocks away might want to start quaking in their sneakers.
Since opening Off-Broadway last October, things have been streamlined and slickened up. “Spanger, new to her role for Broadway, is a welcome and experienced addition in a role that stretches a bit wider and deeper than the others (but just a bit).” A couple of the book’s weightier gags, which pointedly attempted to engage any intellectuals who mistakenly wandered into the theater, are much-missed excisions.
But against the odds, everything feels bigger and plays better now than it did then. The songs are juicier, the jokes are funnier (Taylor’s second-act song of defiance has blossomed from a choice bit into one of the season’s sadly few legitimate comic showstoppers), and everything feels more alive - if hardly more necessary. It’s amazing the magic Broadway can work, even on a show you’d think would have no use for it. But how else to explain how Rock of Ages does everything wrong, but still ends up being unquestionably right?