Those curious about the sort of rock back-catalog musical one could write on the back of a napkin should pay a visit to “Tonight’s the Night,” the latest in a predominantly British genre of rapidly diminishing returns, except where it matters most — the box office. Following on from “Mamma Mia!” and “We Will Rock You,” which shook to the beat of Abba and Queen, respectively, writer-director Ben Elton makes his amazingly slovenly way through 27 numbers from the Rod Stewart songbook, even if the £4.5 million ($7.55 million) show seems far more interested in the now 58-year-old Stewart’s status as an apparent sex god. “He always had class,” sighs Baby Jane Golden (Catherine Porter), Stewart’s smitten manager — class and, so the show tells us, a sizable appendage, which is more or less the one area where “Tonight’s the Night” actually does think big.
Otherwise, the subpar narrative makes for a long night indeed, not least since Elton’s staging lacks the rock arena pyrotechnics that distinguished this writer’s last entry, the still-running “We Will Rock You,” which has been a substantial West End hit. Elton isn’t the first Briton to stumble his way through a risible American story: Matthew Bourne fared little better in his synthetically sweaty “The Car Man.” But one could have expected at least a modicum of conviction from what is best thought of as an anthropomorphized jukebox, where song after song — many of them appealing — comes pouring out, linked by connective tissue that is noticeably, you’ll forgive the word, flaccid.
One of two West End openings within four days to take place largely in hell (“Jerry Springer — The Opera” was the other), “Tonight’s the Night” opens to the gyrations of a leggy, blonde female Satan (Hannah Waddingham), who speaks with the eccentric, unplaceable accent of Kathleen Turner and apparently has weaned her devilish cohorts on outtakes from last season’s Broadway debacle “Dance of the Vampires.”
Up on Earth, Satan is busy effecting a “soul swap.” Her victim is a geeky Detroit garage mechanic with the none-too-accidental first name Stuart (Tim Howar). Before you can say “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” this wholesome fella has been satanically corrupted by the spirit of Rod, which is to say he’s given a raspy rock ‘n’ roll voice and an insatiable libido leading him on to fame, fortune and femmes in L.A.
Every Faust rewrite, however, must include a fall. By the final curtain, Stuart has given up dressing-room hissy fits in favor of a heartfelt return to the Midwest and to g.f. Sweet Lady Mary (Dianne Pilkington), where Stu can nurse an avowed fondness for 19th-century American verse (Walt Whitman — rock on!) that doesn’t quite square with the lad’s ragamuffin haircut.
The story might not matter so much if there weren’t nearly three hours of it, including the inevitable visit to Stewart’s L.A. manse, a gold-gated affair with the words “booze, balls, birds” inscribed to welcome all comers. Although the actual Stewart (unlike Jerry Springer in his show) is not a character in “Tonight’s the Night,” Elton ties himself in miserably facetious knots wanting to have fun with the singer-songwriter’s persona while at the same time tipping the most sanctimonious of caps. “Thank you God, I mean Rod,” we are told at one point, not long after Satan has canonized Stewart as a “big bad blond rock pig.” No wonder Stewart himself was conspicuously absent from this show’s opening night: Surely vanity this insistent must eventually pall. (The show’s co-producer, Arnold Stiefel, is Stewart’s manager.)
And what of the songs? The lead-ins, for the most part, aren’t that much more cringe-making than they were in “Mamma Mia!” Out comes the Stewart estate’s massage team, clad entirely in white, and we are plunged into “Hot Legs.” A battle for Mary’s affection between Stu and the ever-patient Rocky (Tim Funnell), the garage shop’s resident “grease monkey,” cues “Stay With Me,” while “Someone Like You” is fiercely sung by Pilkington as Mary’s rebuke to her philandering, husky-voiced lover: It’s this show’s unlikely equivalent to “Be On Your Own,” from “Nine.”
The singing generally outshines the acting, though at least one role, Rod’s gay butler Jorge (Howard Samuels), is so unplayable that you simply avert your gaze. (At the same time, jokes about a “Vagina Monologues” companion piece, “The Penis Apologizes,” makes you want to stop up your ears.) Howar, a London-based Canadian, brought a welcome whiff of danger several seasons ago to the short West End stand of “Peggy Sue Got Married,” which makes it doubly odd that he should make so bland a leading man; “Rock You’s” original star, Tony Vincent, would have been far more fiery in the part. But with the exception of the droll Michael McKell as the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards-esque Stoner (When he says, “I was born naughty,” you believe him), “Tonight’s the Night” suggests virtually everyone involved was struggling for inspiration, with choreographer Stephen Mear (“Anything Goes”) and designer Lez Brotherston (“Swan Lake”) among the estimable talents whose contributions here are strictly pro forma. Brotherston has a scenic coup de theatre up his sleeve for the finale (think of the 1970s Stewart hit “Sailing” and you’ve guessed it), though even that seems ill-advised. After all, what musical would dare put patrons in mind of “Titanic” when it is so busy moving toward its own iceberg?