What seemingly starts out as an homage to 80’s rock quickly turns into one of the most quirky, entertaining musical comedies on Broadway. When the band first appears on stage in " Rock of Ages," you’re not sure if this is simply going to be a bunch of covers performed by a cast of brightly clad rockers or maybe an attempt to recreate the lively Sunset Strip in its heyday. It's actually neither, although there are tidbits indicating your first impression might be right.
The set, which extends beyond the proscenium into the audience, is filled with Strip memorabilia: an Angelyne billboard, Roxy and Whiskey signs, a logo of the Chateau Marmont, etc. Waitresses come by to take your drink order, as they do in the clubs themselves.
But we soon see that this show is not just about the nightclub scene or the songs, but how the songs are a clever device for telling a story. A not very original story, to be sure, but that’s the point: it’s supposed to be a hokey tale of would-be stars following their dreams, straying from their designated paths and having to figure out how to get back on the proverbial road again.
What makes this oft-told tale so fun is the splendid cast of characters portraying the usual suspects: the egocentric rock star ( James Carpinello); the starry eyed Kansas girl hoping to make it big in Hollywood ( Emily Padgett); the young man who just needs a little more confidence to win both the starlet and a record contract ( Constantine Maroulis); the club owner ( Adam Dannheissert), and other various and sundry characters you’ve seen before. But this is a campy parody, and these actors know how to play it for laughs, especially the narrator ( Mitchell Jarvis) who cavorts about the stage, meddling in everyone’s affairs, as the jester extraordinaire!
The conflict: keeping the club running despite a German developer ( Paul Schoefeler) and his son ( Derek St. Pierre) announcing its demise with the renovation of the Sunset Strip to rid the area of "rocker druggies." Who will triumph? Duh!
Amidst hit song after hit song we ride the roller coaster of life with our motley crew. The songs could have been written for the show, perfectly planted in the script as the story unfolds. “ I Wanna Know What Love Is” reveals the young couple’s naivete as they fail to get their romance off the ground. “ Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is introduced as the German developer faces his activist foes on the Strip. And then of course “ Don’t Stop Believing” is the show's theme song, as if this energetic crew ever could!
Our knowing the lyrics is, of course, part of the fun. All we have to hear is the first bar, and we know where it’s going. Of course they’re about to raise their voices for “ We Built This City” when they’re mad as hell at the attempt to gentrify their piece of the rock. All the characters are wonderfully woven into the story.
“ Rock of Ages” is definitely an audience participation event. We’re brought into the action, asked to sing along at times or wave our tiny flashlights over our heads as the cast breaks out into “ I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore.” Yes, you get to keep the little souvenirs.
Another storytelling device is the clever use of the video screen behind the band. It’s always part of the action: a background setting (the Strip itself or the starlet’s hometown in Kansas) or another location such as the rock star’s digs in Hollywood where he’s on the phone to the club owner who's on stage, where the video becomes a sort of Skyping device, allowing us to eavesdrop on their conversation. Pretty cool!
And then there are the bright lights, smoke machines and fairy dust sprinkled into the audience. You never know what’s coming. The characters also transform unexpectedly, adding to the spontaneity. This is such a high energy production, if at some point you don’t stand up and rock out with the cast, you probably slept through the 80’s!
Rock of Ages
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 W. 47th St.
New York, NY 10036-1411