Get Those Lighters Out

Tom Paxton likes to say that, with respect to nostalgia, it is OK to look back as long as you don’t stare. I’m not sure if there was a staring contest going on last night at the Pantages when we saw Rock of Ages. This show, which came off as a cross between a traditional musical and a late-1980s rock concert, came complete with a segment of the audience wearing 1980s hair and clothes, and waving their lighters (well, OK, cell phones) at any opportunity.

At its heart, Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical. There is no original score; instead, the musical features a collection of classic “Glam Rock” songs by Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Steve Perry, Poison, White Snake, and Asia (groups that I must admit, to my daughter’s dismay, I never listened to back in the day). This means these songs fall into “recent nostalgia”, as opposed to the “ancient nostalgia” of jukebox musicals with 1950s and 1960s era music.This means, of course, that the music is in the audience’s vernacular, and they must (of course) sing along. It’s like a rock show where the band is playing all the audience’s favorites. Add to this the fact the musical is playing not that far from the Sunset Strip where many of these bands played, and as I said, out come the lighters.

But “Rock of Ages” is more than a collection of songs: it is a traditional book musical. The book author, Chris D’arienzo, took these songs and weaved them into a love story about Drew, an aspiring rocker, and Sherrie, a girl from the midwest who comes out to the Sunset Strip to find her dreams. It does this by telling the story of the The Bourbon Room, owned by Dennis Dupree, a former rocker who gave the band Arsenal its start. Drew works there, and after he falls for Sherrie, gets her hired as a waitress in the club. All this is commented upon continuously by Lonnie, the sound guy and narrator. Meanwhile, German developers, Hertz and his son Franz, convince the city’s Mayor to abandon the lifestyle of the Sunset Strip and introduce “clean living” into the area. This angers the hippie-era City Planner, Regina. When Dennis learns that part of the plan involves demolishing The Bourbon Room, he believes the club can generate more money by having rock star Stacee Jaxx and his band Arsenal, who recently announced their break-up, perform their last show at The Bourbon. He calls Stacee and convinces him to play the band’s last show in the club where he began. Meanwhile, Drew starts writing lyrics to express his love for Sherrie, but makes the mistake on a date of indicating they are just friends. So, when Jaxx comes to the club to give an interview, Sherrie is immediately smitten with him… with predictable results. Drew plays in the club and displays enough musical ability that Dennis asks him to open for Stacee and Arsenal. Jaxx gets Sherrie fired before the concert begins, and Jaxx’s guitarist realizes what Stacee did and knocks him out. A record producer in the club suggests Drew take over for Stacee, and then offers him a contract, which he accepts. Sherrie seeks comfort from Drew after she is fired, but having seen her go into the men’s room with Stacee, he dismisses her. Sherrie ends up working for Justice, the owner of the nearby Venus Club which Justice prefers to call a gentleman’s club. This leaves everyone alone… a perfect place to end the act.

As Act II starts, demolition has begun. Franz falls for Regina (who is protesting the demolition). Dennis and Lonny join the fight with little success. Drew’s glam rocker image has failed, and so the producer is reshaping it into a boy band, while Sherrie is learning how things work at the Venus Club. Sherrie and Drew argue and Sherrie admits that she loved Drew, but he said they were friends. They part ways more troubled by these new revelations. Meanwhile, Stacee arrives at the Venus Club and is pleased to see Sherrie. After being forced to give him a lapdance, she beats him up while dancing. Drew arrives to admit his feelings to her, but becomes angry when he sees the two in a suggestive position and storms off. Regina continues her protest, and convinces Franz to stand up to his father if he does not believe in his father’s vision. He does and admits his love for Regina. Dennis and Lonny, upset at the loss of The Bourbon Room, also suggest they had feelings for each other. Sherrie leaves the Venus Club after the scene with Drew. Everyone is in turmoil as they attempt move on with their lives. Drew, now a pizza delivery boy, realizes none of his dreams have come true- he still isn’t a rock star, and Sherrie is leaving on a midnight train. Lonny arrives to tell him to make his own destiny; that it’s up to him to get the girl. He decides to go after Sherrie. He reaches her in time and they realize their love has survived all their trials and reconcile.
[Note: Story synopsis drawn from Wikipedia]

Convoluted story, yes. But who comes to this for the story—you come for the music and to (hold up your fingers appropriately with rock and roll devil horns and scream) roooooock. What makes the story work is not the story but the humor behind it. This musical knows it is a musical, and Lonnie, acting as the narrator, breaks the fourth wall all the time to mention it. He starts by indicating that a good musical needs a love story; he does it at the end of act one indicating that the act must end with everyone in disarray. At the end, he discards the book entirely. The musical is playful and self-indulgent and just breaks the conventions. This draws in the audiences and just makes the evening fun.

I think a large part of the credit for this should go to the director, Kristin Hanggi. She brings out the fun in the cast, and as the cast has fun with the show, the audience eats it up. The cast is having the time of their life up on stage; the band is rocking away, and the audience is in for the joyous ride.

The cast is no slouch either. Although for many the draw is Constantine Maroulis as Drew, my favorite was Patrick Lewallen as Lonny. He brings the right tone to the overall evening: he lets the audience realize that the glam rock era was a parody of itself when happening the first time, and has just the right touch of sardonic humor to make him the perfect narrator. Lewallen plays this to perfection, and pretty much steals the scenes whenever he is on. But I’m sure you want to know about the leads: Constantine Maroulis as Drew and Rebecca Faulkenberry as Sherri. Both are very strong and have a great charm about them, in addition to being strong singers and rockers. These two are fun to watch—I particularly enjoyed the goofiness that Maroulis expressed, and the power of Faulkenberry.

The second tier leads also had their standouts. My favorite was Casey Tuma as Regina, but then again, I tend to like the look and vibe of that character. Tuma was a strong singer and comic actress, and she worked well in the traditional comic second couple role. Paired with her was Travis Walker as Franz. Walker also had strong comic timing and moves. I also enjoyed Nick Cordero as Dennis Dupree, as he reminded me of some folks I know who are survivors of that era, still doing music, still hanging in there (yes, Marque, I’m thinking of you). Rounding out the second tier leads were MiG Ayesa (Stacee Jaxx), Teresa Stanley (Justice/Mother), and Bret Tuomi (Hertz). Rounding out the cast were Angela Brydon (Waitress #1, Ensemble), Joey Calveri (Joey Primo, Ensemble), Lindsay Janisse (Young Groupie, Dance Captain), Sean Jenness (Ensemble, Male Booth Singer), Holly Laurent (Swing), Lauralyn McClelland (Constance, Ensemble), Rashad Naylor (Mayor, Ensemble), Josh Sassanella (Swing), Erika Shannon (Swing), and J. Michael Zygo (Swing).
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Of course, what makes this show is the music, which was arranged and supervised by Ethan Popp and David Gibbs. This is one of the few shows where the band gets the kudos they deserve, getting their playoff with the theatre still dark and the audience in their seats (OK, standing and rocking out) as they do. Popp also served as musical supervisor and orchestrator. John Miller was Music Coordinator. Brandon Ethridge was Music Director. Rounding out the musical credits were: Randy Cohen (Syntheizer Programmer), Chris Cicchino (Guitar 1), Alan Childs (Drums), Jonathan Skibic (Bass), Brandon Ethridge (Keyboard/Conductor), and David Gibbs (Guitar 2). That the music was good is no surprise looking at the rock credentials of these folks.

Dance is a large part of rock. Kelly Devine (assisted by Robert Tatad) kept the cast moving with appropriate moves that were always entertainment, and only showed a hint of ballet :-).

Turning to the technical, there were a few problems. As usual, this was due to the mishmash that occurs between the standard technical setup established by the technical artists when the tour starts and the unfortunate buildings they are booked in (cough, Pantages, cough). So as usual, at the Pantages, the sound was a bit muddied (although with the volume, that probably didn’t matter much), and from where we sat, scenic elements designed for a wider stage blocked more important scenic elements. Still, I think the technical folks did the best with what they had. Leading the pack was the lighting design of Jason Lyons, which made extensive use of moving lights and LED strips to give a great rock concert feel while still using colors effectively to create mood. The sound by Peter Hylenski was suitably loud, but had difficulty with the odd angles of the Pantages. The costumes by Gregory Gale and hairstylings of Tom Watson were suitably 1980s. The set design by Beowulf Boritt evoked the Sunset Strip, but the Angelyene billboard did a wonderful job of blocking the ability to see the projection designs of Zak Borovay from the side of the theatre. Makeup was by Angelina Avallone, with Phoenix Entertainment serving as Technical Supervisor.

Rounding out the credits: Michael Danek (Production Stage Manager); Francesca Russell (Stage Manager), Michael G. Morales (Assistant Stage Manager). Adam John Hunter was Associate Director and Production Supervisor). Telsey+Company CSA did the casting. I’d list the producers, but there were more producers then there are urchins in a production of Oliver!.

Rock of Ages” continues at the Pantages until February 27th. It is worth seeing, but note that Pantages ticket prices are high, and you are likely only to find discounts for mid-week. Although you can purchase tickets online, my advice is to go to the box office to avoid the surcharges. “Rock of Ages” is worth seeing if you are of the age where the music has meaning to you. You’ll enjoy the concert and enjoy the in-jokes in the story.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: As for us, our next show is a non-musical, for we go downtown to the Ahmanson Theatre this evening for “33 Variations. Tomorrow evening may be a free improvised musical done by Interact Theatre Company as part of their Reading Series at the NoHo Arts Center. February closes with “Moonlight and Magnolias” at The Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also busy. It begins with Evita at Van Nuys HS on Thursday, March 3 (to see one of the two actresses playing Eva Peron), followed by a Noel Paul Stookey concert at McCabes on March 4. Saturday March 5 is the MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at TBH, and Sunday brings “Nunsensations” at the Lyric Theatre in Hollywood. Saturday March 12 sees us back at Van Nuys to see the other actress playing Eva Peron in Evita”, at Van Nuys High School. Sunday, March 13 is “The Cradle Will Rock” at the Blank Theatre. The weekend of March 19 is currently open, but I’m planning on ticketing “Having It All” at the NoHo Arts Center, once that date shows up on Goldstar. Lastly, March 26 brings “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Repertory East. April will bring the Renaissance Faire on the weekend of April 9. April 16 brings “The Producers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. April 23rd, which is during Pesach, brings the last show of the current Colony season, “The All Night Strut” at the Colony Theatre. The last weekend of April is being held open (i.e., pending ticketing) for Brian Stokes Mitchell at the new Valley Performing Arts Center. May is just starting to shape up, with the first weekend being held for God of Carnage at the Ahmanson Theatre (pending Hottix) and Cabaret” at REP East on May 28.