On occasion, even a misconceived show can work so hard at winning over its audience that resistance to its efforts becomes futile. If nothing else, the creative forces behind “Rock of Ages” — a concert/musical comedy blend that camps to rock songs of ’80s “big-hair” bands like Journey and REO Speedwagon — take their concept and do it up: The hair is big, the music is bigger, and the performance style for its lame, contrived plotlines is, well, humongous. Seeking nothing more than to be a very guilty pleasure, this celebration of ’80s tastelessness wears down defenses with an ability to keep topping its absurdities.
The show struggles mightily early on, as it tries to fuse its storytelling into the music. Chris D’Arienzo’s book is an exercise in reverse engineering song lyrics into cliche plot formulas; boy will meet, lose and get the girl, and all their dialogue will really be about setting up later songs. Lead characters (Laura Bell Bundy and James Snyder) work at a fictional 1980s club on the Sunset Strip called Rock of Ages. Even her name, Sherrie Christian, will cue two songs, Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie” and Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian.” On top of that tidbit, she’s a small-town girl, he’s a boy from (probably south) Detroit. Those with intimate knowledge of songs by Journey can guess right now the tune that will eventually serve as the climax in a story about how dreaming is important even if it leads one into a life of temporary debauchery.
The debauchery, which is always a lot more fun than the dreaming, is embodied by the sleazy, coke-addled, narcissistic rock star (is there another kind?) by the name of Stacee Jaxx (Chris Hardwick). Before embarking on a not-so-successful solo career, he beds the adorable Sherrie to the Foreigner tune “I Wanna Know What Love Is,” while the plethora of dancers simulate an orgy.
There are other archetypes here to play out another plotline, the potential demolition of Rock of Ages. This story brings in the club owner Dennis Dupree (Kyle Gass of Tenacious D), his right-hand stagehand — and occasional narrator — Lonny Barnett (Dan Finnerty), the German real estate developer Hertz (David Holladay), the developer’s not-gay-just-European son Franz (Tom Lenk), the corrupt mayor (Jeremy Rabb) and the city planner hippie from Berkeley (Patty Wortham) who fights against the evils of urban renewal.
That’s an awful lot of characters not to care about. It’s not as if D’Arienzo and director Kristin Hanggi seek to find sincerity in any of these songs, just an excuse for the highly rocking six-man band to play them and for the cast of seeming thousands to belt them out at full volume.
If it never really connects dramatically, the show is saved as a giant lounge act by some fine production values (Ligia Morris’ costumes are as funny as they are lavish), juicy performances and, most of all, Hanggi’s unreserved commitment to camp, which manages to build some comic momentum.
If a couple of dancers doing a stupid “Solid Gold”-like dance resembling a series of figure skating lifts doesn’t amuse, then wait a little bit, and there will be a whole bunch of couples doing a similar stupid dance. If that still doesn’t do it, wait for the couple to climb up a ribbon and do a bad dance in the air to the Damn Yankees song “High Enough.”
There does come a saturation point when there’s no choice but to laugh, feel guiltily happy about it and maybe even sing along to “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”