Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Rock of Ages
Arizona Broadway Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Equal Opportunity Offenders: Music from South Park, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Music of Billy Joel & More, Sweeney Todd, When You Wish

Laurie Elizabeth Gardner and Seth Hunter
Photo by Joe Samplin
Take cheesy jokes, a predictable plot, and stereotypical characters and set them among some of the best known pop rock tunes of the 1980s and you end up with the crowd pleasing musical Rock of Ages. This story of an innocent boy and a small-town girl, who are both looking for love and success on the Sunset Strip, is a sordid and campy, but also heartwarming and hilarious, celebration of all things sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Arizona Broadway Theatre presents the local regional premiere of the Tony nominated musical with a terrific and exceptionally hard-working cast and sublime creative elements that are all on par with the recent Broadway production.

The show is set in 1987 in Los Angeles, in the time and place of big hair and big dreams, where Drew, a wannabe rock star, and Sherrie, a hopeful young actress, suffer life's trials, tribulations and setbacks, both romantic and professional. They dream of becoming as big as one of their idols, rock legend Stacee Jaxx, but discover that everything isn't as good as it seems in the glamorous world of rock 'n' roll, including Jaxx. There is also a subplot that focuses on an uptight, greedy German property developer who wants to demolish and rebuild the Sunset Strip, including the Bourbon Room club where Drew works and which is owned by Dennis DuPree and managed by the show's narrator, the lewd, crude, and utterly charming Lonny.

While the show's book by Chris D'Arienzo is very predictable, and some of the events that happen are slightly sordid, there is still a sweetness to Drew and Sherrie and their plight, as well as plenty of charm in the supporting characters, and you'll most likely laugh along at the many '80s references. The score features some of the biggest hits of the era from REO Speedwagon, Styx, Foreigner, Journey, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, Pat Benatar, and Mötley Crüe, including "Don't Stop Believin'," "Waiting for a Girl Like You," and "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." You will not only already know just about every song in the show but find humor in how they are incorporated into the story.

However, Rock of Ages isn't without its faults. The first act is a little bumpy, mainly in the somewhat forced plot developments and in how many of these hit songs aren't sung in their entirety, with several combined with other songs or just ending abruptly. You may feel a little shortchanged from the story and songs in act one. Fortunately, the second act lets the songs stand alone with back to back duos where the lyrics really fit with the voices of the characters, and the entire show culminates in a joyous, kick-ass, and emotionally satisfying conclusion.

The ABT cast is exceptionally talented. Seth Hunter brings a huge dollop of genuine vulnerability to the part of good-guy Drew. Hunter's powerful vocals excel on Drew's numerous songs, and his boyish charm and natural appeal make for a winning portrayal. Laurie Elizabeth Gardner is superb as the sweet and fresh-faced Sherrie. Gardner's voice is rock star perfect, as she delivers stunning vocals with exceptional control—from quieter ballads like "More Than Words" to full force numbers like "Harden My Heart." Sherrie suffers a lot throughout the show and Gardner does wonderful work in showing the innocence, perseverance and pain her character encounters. The duo create characters you root for and their many moments together, including a rocking duet of "Higher," are excellent.

Matthew Mello is sublime as Lonny, the narrator who is both lewd and mischievous yet completely funny and full of charm. He also does well with his improvisational skills, since he constantly talks to the audience, and he also has vocals that excel on his songs. As Dennis, the Bourbon Room owner, Rob Watson evokes the laid-back, stoner mentality perfectly and the duet he has with Mello of "I Can't Fight This Feeling" is a crowd pleaser. Joe Ogren makes Stacee Jaxx an appropriately self-absorbed, drugged out, charismatic rock god who oozes sex appeal and uses it to get his way, yet he also instills the part with a loneliness that makes you actually care for Jaxx. Like the rest of the cast, Ogren is a gifted vocalist, delivering a soaring performance of "Dead or Alive."

In the supporting cast, Bobby Underwood and Barret Harper are fun as the German father and son who are planning to tear down the Strip, and Rori Nogee is full of fire as the hippie revolutionist who is protesting their plans. Harper and Nogee are hilarious in their duet of "Hit Me with Your Best Shot." Chanel Bragg brings a motherly grace and concern to Justice, the owner of the gentlemen's club where Sherrie ends up, and Bragg's vocals soar on "Every Rose Has Its Thorn."

Kurtis W. Overby's direction is solid, instilling sincerity, conviction, and a wink to the '80s parody from his cast, and his choreography is full of energy and fire and delivered exceptionally by the hard working ensemble and leads. Mark 4Man's music direction draws stellar vocals from the cast, and his conducting of the five piece band is spotless. ABT's creative and production elements just keep getting better and this show achieves brilliant Broadway-level results from the talented designers. The two-tier set design by Geoffrey M. Eroe is so realistic you can practically smell the aroma of beer, sweat and sex. Lottie Dixon's costumes and Amanda Gran's brilliant wigs and make-up are perfect parodies as well as a loving and hilarious homage to everything exceptionally wrong with 1980s fashions and hairstyles. William C. Kirkham's ever-changing lighting design is reminiscent of a professional rock tour and Brian Jerome Peterson's sound keeps the whole thing in check without becoming ear splitting, though there were a few moments at the performance I attended when the music overpowered the lyrics or an occasional line of dialogue.

Rock of Ages is clearly not Oklahoma! as far as being a traditional musical, so it may not appeal to everyone. Musical theatre purists or those who didn't grow up in the 1980s or aren't fans of the power rock anthems and head-banging music of that era may actually find it a miserable experience. However, even while the book is slight and the plot predictable, at its core Rock of Ages treats its characters and the time period with respect, and when performed with passion and power, and produced with superb creative aspects, which this ABT production has in spades, it all amounts to an incredibly good time.

Rock of Ages runs through June 19th, 2016, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 623-776-8400.

Stage Direction and Choreography: Kurtis W. Overby
Music Direction: Mark 4Man
Set Design: Geoffrey M. Eroe
Costume Design: Lottie Dixon
Wig/Make-Up Design: Amanda Gran
Sound Design: Brian Jerome Peterson
Lighting Design: William C. Kirkham
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting and Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake

Cast: (In Alphabetical Order): Ahnastasia Albert: Female Ensemble/Regina Cover
Chanel Bragg: Justice
Jessica Crilley: Waitress #1/Female Ensemble
Laurie Elizabeth Gardner*: Sherrie
Barret Harper: Franz
Seth Hunter: Drew
Renee Kathleen Koher: Female Ensemble
Matthew Mello: Lonny
Lauren Morgan: Female Ensemble
Nicholas Moulton: Joey Primo/Ensemble/Drew Cover
Rori Nogee: Regina
Joe Ogren: Stacee Jaxx
Michael Thompson: Mayor/Ja'Keith
Bobby Underwood: Hertz
Rob Watson: Dennis

*Actor Appears Through The Courtesy Of Actors' Equity Association, The Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States