Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of The People in the Picture
In 2008 a musical opened that did not focus on just one band or musician but on an entire era: the Reagan, feel-good-about-me 1980s. Rock of Ages opened to mixed reviews, but its almost thirty songs by twenty or so different big bands were enough to send the musical into 2328 performances on the Great White Way, placing it currently in the top thirty all-time longest Broadway runs. Rock of Ages has a story line that is mildly interesting and highly predictable. There are many over-the-top references to the big hair, wild times of drugs and alcohol, skimpy skirts and butt-tight pants of the '80s (as well as plenty of crude, lewd jokes of the kind that eventually find their way into high school hallways). But what probably keeps audiences flocking to locally produced and touring shows of Rock of Ages is the music of such bands as Journey, Foreigner, Twisted Sister, and Bon Jovi.
For any production of Rock of Ages to be successful, the music must reign supreme, since Chris D'Arienzo's cheesy but fun book will only carry the show so far. Palo Alto Players has opened its own take of Rock of Ages with a stage-filling cast of seventeen and an onstage band of five; and although the band rocks out the arrangements and orchestrations of Ethan Popp, the cast members overall are not able to do full justice in their solos and duets to the long list of hit songs.
With a couple of notable exceptions, only when in full ensemble pieces (such as the opening "Nothin' But a Good Time" and the closing "Don't Stop Believin'") do the members of the Palo Alto Players cast deliver good, solid harmonies without over-singing to the point of often near screaming their notes. Even the story's key actors seem unable to avoid sliding off key, going flat, or simply just moving out of their vocal "beauty box" once they turn the volume up and/or move too far up the scale out of their individual ranges. The bottom-line is that the two-and-a-half-hour show never gets off the ground musically and thus becomes a long time to sit and hope that things get better.
The basic storyline involves a Hollywood bar called the Bourbon Room where live bands play. The joint is being caught up in a German developer's plans to re-do the Sunset Strip in order to make way for such gems as Locker Room. Stern-faced, heavily accented Hertz (Barbara Heninger) convinces a bribe-prone Mayor (Shawn Bender) to rid the Strip of its "sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll" lifestyle. The bar's owner, Dennis (Joey McDaniel), seeks to have one last big show, bringing in the ego-inflated, bare-chested Stacee Jaxx (Jimmy Mason) and his disgruntled band Arsenal to play in order to bring in one final stash of cash.
Arriving about the time of the bar's demise is Kansas-born, wanna-be-a-star Sherrie (Jessica LaFever) who first has eyes for a wannabe rocker Drew (Jason Mooney) but gets caught up in infatuation with Stacee (and is coaxed by his roaming hands and licking tongue into the men's bathroom for grungy sex). Stacee bombs his set via too much drugs and booze; Sherrie finds herself starring as a stripper; and Drew has a chance not to be rocker, but a boy band singer in a green jumpsuit. But all is not lost, and the musical's book proceeds with twists and turns to an ending where rock music, and love, still win out.
Many of the soloists actually show much promise when they are singing in lower ranges and/or in softer, more ballad-like volumes. If perhaps given better direction by music director Lauren Bevilacqua on how to hold back just enough to not blast past their individual abilities, I believe most could have done much better. A couple singers are more than able to handle the music they deliver. Izetta Klein as Justice, the mothering owner of a strip club, has the lungs and the clear vocals to make her own hit out of her solo portions of "Any Way You Want It" and "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." Likewise, whenever Stephen Kanaski as the German boy, Franz, gets a turn to sing, he too rises to the top vocally with notes that pierce the air in clarity without distorting (as in "Hit Me with Your Best Shot").
Unfortunately, the show's director, Janie Scott, also has pushed some of the actors over the edge, including Sven Schultz, who serves as the narrator named Lonny. Rock of Ages has built into its script a proneness to poke much fun at the trends of the '80s, from Slurpees to pole dancing to floppy, long hair that is swung in circles and gyrated wildly to rock beats. However, the narrator's over-silly, clownish-without-being-funny approach to threading parts of the story together becomes too distracting and tends (at least on the evening I attended) to bomb in terms of drawing much if any laughter from the audience.
The Palo Alto production does look terrific visually. The set designed by Patrick Klein of the Hollywood Bourbon Room invites one to take a lot of time to relish the 1980s kitsch via a blow-up body dangling from the wall, bras hung everywhere as trophies, and booze in big and bigger bottles weighing down ceiling-reaching shelves. On a huge screen in the bar above the band are projected live and video images of the story and the era, which adds much authenticity to the bar's decor. Even a quick appearance of a men's nasty bar bathroom, its walls filled with toilet-worthy graffiti, is a trip down memory lane for anyone who has been there, done that.
The costumes of Scarlett Kellum are wildly hilarious and a parade of reminders of both the scanty and the overdone outfits worn by those who frequented bars with bands in the '80s (as well as those who made their way into or who worked in places like sleazy strip joints). Edward Hunter's lighting flashes in just the right ways to remind one of what it was like inside a local band bar/club of that era. Brandie Larkin's sound design works well for the outstanding band onstage but has more trouble in always delivering the actors' dialogue that is sometimes too muddled or muted to understand.
There are unfortunately too many wrong notes in the current Palo Alto Players production of Rock of Ages, even though the athletic enthusiasm of the cast could not be higher. There is much fun in what to see but not enough solid songs to hear, making this a show I cannot overall recommend.
Rock of Ages continues through May 13, 2018, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets for the Palo Alto Players production are available at www.paplayers.org or by calling 650-329-0891.