If the 1980s were a bad-fashion blur you’d rather forget, “Rock of Ages” may not be for you. But if tortured mullets, unwaxed chests, studded leather, acid-wash denim and wailing guitars make you yearn for the Reagan years, this unapologetically silly hair-metal jukebox musical will probably have you gulping tequila shots and singing along. Every bit as brazen as the yardstick for the genre, “Mamma Mia!,” in wedging hit songs into a purpose-built, featherweight plot, the show has an abiding affection for its inglorious era that goes some way toward selling its brash charms.
With their grandiose mini-narratives about small-town girls and city boys following their dreams and finding love, or at least rock ‘n’ roll heaven, amid the heartache, the overproduced songs of bands like Styx, Poison, Foreigner, Europe, Asia and Survivor are a surprisingly snug fit for musical treatment.
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That music may not feature heavily in the iTunes libraries of Broadway show fans, but given the eternal push to find new theater audiences, maybe it’s not a bad idea to bypass the regulars once in a while and speak directly to the bridge and tunnel crowd. A New Line movie currently in the works can’t hurt the branding profile of “Rock of Ages,” either.
Even before curtain, the atmosphere at the Brooks Atkinson is less like Broadway than a concert experience. The air is thick with fog and a whiff of armpit that could be an olfactory effect or a hard-working drinks waiter — the show has in-seat cocktail service, something you don’t get at “Irena’s Vow.” The merchandise stands are doing brisk sales in “Hooray for Boobies” T-shirts, while seemingly heterosexual bartenders shout, “Splash of cran, ladies?” Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in the theater district any more.
As the show opens with blinding lights, ear-shredding guitars and hammer-handed drumming, it’s clear that mosh-pit atmosphere is paramount. Beowulf Boritt’s witty set is a jumble of iconic signage — the Chateau Marmont, an Angelyne billboard, Jack Daniels ads — that re-creates Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip in the ’80s. That setting frames Dupree’s Bourbon Room, a fictional venue festooned with bras and panties of groupies past. But behind the show’s trashy facade lies a conventionally sweet musical that traces the standard trajectory of boy meets, loses and finally wins girl.
Narrator, or self-described “dramatic conjurer,” is sound guy Lonny (Mitchell Jarvis), an ingratiating Jack Black clone who winks at the audience with every hoary contrivance. His star-crossed lovers are busboy and wannabe rocker Drew (“American Idol” alum Constantine Maroulis) and aspiring actress Sherrie Christian (Amy Spanger), a Kansas gal whose name dictates we’ll be hearing both Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie” and Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” before long.
While Sherrie is misreading Drew’s signals and getting sidetracked by debauched metal star Stacee Jaxx (James Carpinello), a German developer (Paul Schoeffler) strikes a deal to replace the Strip with a strip mall, sparking a protest to save the club. There’s also Sherrie’s downward spiral as, embittered and confused, she takes a lap-dancing gig under the wing of Venus Club den mother Justice (Michele Mais).
Chris D’Arienzo’s broad-strokes story never pretends to cut deeper than the musicvideo narratives it echoes, so despite appealing work from both Maroulis and Spanger, the show’s emotional surges are linked more to the songs than to the romance. When an audience is primed to laugh just by the opening bars of a cheesy ’80s anthem, the writing doesn’t exactly need to be timeless, nor the comedy particularly clever.
Arranger-orchestrator Ethan Popp does a nifty job overlapping thematically related songs to further the flimsy plot, notably the scene-setter of Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noize” with David Lee Roth’s “Just Like Paradise,” or Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart” with Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night” during Sherrie’s stripper odyssey.
There’s some wit in the appropriation of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as a protest number; Bon Jovi’s self-mythologizing cowboy tune “Wanted Dead or Alive” as a sleazy peacock strut for Stacee; and Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” deftly manipulated into a multivoiced 11 o’clock number.
But the biggest crowd-pleasers are the character-driven songs. REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” serves as a bromance declaration between Lonny and Bourbon boss Dennis (Adam Dannheisser), while Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” becomes a rebel yell from effete Franz (Wesley Taylor), the German developer’s no-longer-acquiescent son. Those numbers are boosted by performers given humorous characterizations rather than cutouts to play. However, in the show’s juiciest comic role, Carpinello brings the bod and the vocal chops but doesn’t match the bad-boy magnetism of Will Swenson, whose Stacee was the highlight of the Off Broadway run.
Director Kristin Hanggi knows better than to loiter long between songs, and while it’s overstretched for a show that waves its lack of substance like a banner, “Rock of Ages” keeps moving. Choreographer Kelly Devine gleefully apes the worst excesses of the era’s pole-dancing, crotch-grinding, big-hair-tossing moves; costumer Gregory Gale re-creates the wardrobe crimes with flair; hair guru Tom Watson has worked overtime with the curling wand; and Jason Lyons’ aggressive lighting cranks up the heat.
While “The Wedding Singer” failed to sustain a Broadway audience with its ’80s campfest, that show didn’t have around 30 of the decade’s quintessential hits sampled by a cast that screeches, roars and purrs as if to the power chord born. It’s safe to say nostalgists won’t feel cheated by “Rock of Ages,” and that it won’t be stealing audiences from “South Pacific.” But by the time the ensemble unites on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” even nonbelievers may start inhaling the Aqua Net and embracing their inner rocker.