Really, “Rock of Ages” should suck. Like a thousand other shows, it takes pop songs from a particular era (in this case, the hair metal ’80s) and shoves them into a flimsy plot, then it names the ingenue Sherrie, so her boyfriend can sing Steve Perry’s “Oh, Sherrie.” The ushers even hand out lighter-shaped flashlights, so everyone can participate in the forced nostalgia by waving fake Bics during power ballads. And yet, somewhere between the Styx dance break and the Twisted Sister reprise, this jukebox tuner transcends its hoary parts to become a legitimate artistic achievement. Auds may even wave their lighters out of genuine enthusiasm.
The success is due largely to tone. If nostalgia musicals take their subjects too seriously, they can be schlocky, but if they mock the past too much, they can be insufferably smug. In “Rock of Ages,” scribe Chris D’Arienzo and director Kristin Hanggi find an excellent middle ground: They know their material is just for fun, but they don’t suggest they’re superior to it. They invite us to laugh with ’80s rock ‘n’ rollers instead of at them.
The comedic lynchpin is Lonny (Mitchell Jarvis), a burnout who runs the sound at Dupree’s Bourbon Room, a fictional club on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. He’s our narrator, and his asides acknowledge the show’s cheesiness without belittling its heart. “This may be a bit more ‘Guys and Dolls’ than the actual Strip,” he says, “But you know what? It’s the theater. We romanticize.”
D’Arienzo lets Lonny comment at all the right times, so it feels like we have an ally on stage. If he groans at an obvious joke, then our intelligence isn’t insulted. If he digs the love story between wannabe rocker Drew (Constantine Maroulis), who cleans the club’s toilets, and naive small-town girl Sherrie (Kelli Barrett), then we’re invited to care about them, too.
Jarvis steals Jack Black’s wise-ass attitude from “School of Rock,” but he ably grounds the show. Even better, he knows when to play small, which keeps him from being a total caricature.
The rest of the cast follows suit. “American Idol” finalist Maroulis finds several honest moments as an awkward kid afraid to pursue his dreams, and Barrett injects real desperation in her journey from suburbanite to failed actress to stripper. (Her arc is one of the script’s wittiest touches, since it recreates Pat Benatar’s journey in the “Love Is a Battlefield” video.)
Will Swenson, who played Berger in this summer’s Central Park revival of “Hair,” ignites several scenes as Stacee Jaxx, the leader of a hair metal band who threatens to steal Sherrie’s heart. His faith in his own sexiness, even when he’s a drunken mess, is charmingly earnest.
Because it’s relatively restrained, the production’s most over-the-top numbers are refreshing. Without giving too much away, the back-to-back insanity of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling” are hilarious because they upend our expectations of the characters, the costumes and the choreography.
And then there’s the music. A few numbers overdose on screechy theatrics, but the singing is mostly impressive. Ethan Popp’s arrangements also make these chestnuts sound fresh, like when Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night” and Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart” blend into a surprisingly successful medley. That kind of craft makes escapism even more satisfying.