Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Rock of Ages
Bank of America Theatre

Also see John's review of Detroit

Constantine Maroulis and the Broadway company of Rock of Ages
Back in the 1980s, I doubt the kids in high school who were listening to the heavy(ish) rock of bands like Journey, Foreigner, Styx and the like had much time for the Broadway musicals the theater geeks were into. But the cool kids are middle-aged now and the big Broadway musical built around some 30 '80s rock classics has started a 60-city road tour in Chicago. With a score that could make its cast album the perfect mix tape for 25-year high school reunions across the country and a multi-media staging that boasts the sorts of production values the big stadium concerts later adopted from the Broadway mega-musicals, Rock of Ages works mainly as rock reunion concert.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, I'd have preferred even more of the songs and less of Chris D'Arienzo's book, which is still another one of the self-referential scripts that acknowledges the form's clich├ęd conventions and winks at itself for actually being one of "those" things. Set in a rock nightclub on LA's Sunset Strip some time in the '80s, D'Arienzo's narrator (Lonny, the club's sound guy, played on opening night by Mitchell Jarvis) even whips out a "Musicals for Dummies" book to explain the structure of the act one finale. It's as if to say "Omigod, I can't believe we're actually doing a musical." Fair enough. The rockers probably never pictured themselves in middle age, either.

The story concerns the Bourbon Club, a fictional music venue presumably inspired by the real-life Whiskey a Go Go. The club of this story made its reputation as the place a rocker by the name of Stacee Jaxx, frontman of the fictitious band Arsenal, first came to attention. Falling on hard times, club owner Dennis (Nick Cordero) gets Jaxx to schedule Arsenal's final performance at the club. Even though it's seen better days, the Bourbon Club still attracts wannabes like aspiring singer-songwriter Drew (Constantine Maroulis) and Sherrie (Rebecca Faulkenberry), hoping to make places for themselves in show business. They could be the small town girl and south Detroit boy from the Journey song "Don't Stop Believin'," who "took a midnight train goin' anywhere." Drew's general awkwardness, together with Jaxx's ungentlemanly behavior toward Sherrie keep Drew and Sherrie apart until the finale. The club is threatened by a father and son duo of German real estate developers (Bret Tuomi and Travis Walker) who want clean up the Sunset Strip by tearing down its rock and strip clubs—a campaign opposed by city planner Regina (Casey Tuma). Lonny and Dennis decide they "can't fight the feelings" they have for each other.

It's a thin story, peppered with silly jokes that are just not clever and, as directed by Kristin Hanggi, delivered broadly with wink-winks that were visible from my seat well in the rear of the orchestra. Hanggi's put it all together in a way that tells us not to take any of this seriously—not the glam rock scene of the '80s, not this musical, and probably not jukebox musicals in general. Her direction has everyone save the two leads mugging and camping way more than they need to, even within her concept. Jarvis, apparently a last-minute replacement for Patrick Lewallen, repeats the role of Lonny he created in New York. Jarvis seems especially self-conscious, but as the original Lonny, you have to believe that's what his director wanted. Same with Travis Walker, a young Chicago actor making an impressive jump from off-Loop musicals to a big national tour. He camps it up fearlessly as the German developer Franz and has a big second act moment with "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

The exceptions to the mugging are Maroulis, repeating in the role of Drew he originated in New York, and Faulkenberry, the British actress playing Sherrie. The two have such complete sincerity and charm, your concern for their two characters carries you through the whole story. They're both winning musical theater actors and the show is at its best when one or both are center stage (which is, thankfully, much of the time). There's no complaint about any of the musical performances, as the cast delivers strong rock vocals and are backed up by a very solid band. The ensemble executes the slick, athletic choreography of Kelly Devine amidst Beowulf Boritt's detailed set of the Bourbon Club. Zak Borovay's effective projections move the action to other locales around Los Angeles, and Gregory Gale's costumes are an eyeful. Together with Jason Lyons' lighting design, the total package has enough of the production values you'd expect from a big-scale rock concert or Broadway musical.

Many of the songs are terrific pop numbers that ought to be accessible and enjoyable even to those who aren't particularly fans of this genre. In spite of the supposed rebellion of '80s hard rock, the lyrics are generally sweet musings on the trials of young love and discovery of one's self, and who can't relate to that? The songs have catchy melodies with strong hooks—qualities that have made them favorites for the sort of compilation albums sold on late night TV infommercials (a fact that is cleverly noted in the show). The music is loud, to be sure, but not excruciatingly so, and the lyrics are audible thanks to the sound design of Peter Hylenski.

When you consider that "Don't Stop Believin'" was the song at the heart of the first season of "Glee," the TV series celebrating musical theater geekdom, and that it's the final number of this musical, you can't deny that it's now a show tune. Maybe the rockers and geeks have met each other halfway. You can go to that high school reunion and have something to talk about after all.

Rock of Ages began its 60-city North American tour at the Bank of America Theater, 18 West Monroe, Chicago, where it will play through October 3, 2010. Tickets are available through any Broadway in Chicago box office, by phone at 800-775-2000, or through Ticketmaster. For more information on the tour, visit

Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson

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