Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Rock of Ages

Photo/Joan Marcus

There's more at the heart of Rock of Ages than just the tried-and-true love story of a would-be rocker, Drew aka Wolfgang Von Colt (Constantine Maroulis), and the aspiring actress from the Midwest, Sherrie (Amy Spanger, who despite playing innocent, is still sultrifying). There's also its homage to the soul of rock 'n' roll on the Sunset Strip, represented here by the Whiskey A Go Go stand-in, The Bourbon Room, and its delightfully unhumble narrator, Lonny (Mitchell Jarvis). The show, which started at New World Stages, has now comfortably moved to Broadway, using "We Built This City" to signify the jukebox sampling that builds the 80s soundtrack and also its debts to Broadway theatrics. Like Xanadu, there are a lot of not-so-inside jokes, but Rock of Ages is more accessible, from the song catalogue to the American Idol "star," and, ironically, its insistence on leaping across the fourth-wall to point out the conventions of musical theater (so that it can follow them without alienating younger, jaded theatergoers).

All this self-reference helps Chris D'Arienzo avoid his biggest problem: artificiality. After all, "You've gotta be honest with your audience," says the Bourbon Room's owner, Dennis (Adam Dannheisser). "That lets them understand how you feel." To this, Drew responds by covering Warrant's "Heaven" and yet, because the stage has been set for it, the karaoke-ish performance manages to satisfy (though never to move, unless you count waving the fake lighters handed out at the theater as a way to order drinks from your seat). The contrived use of songs is also rather well handled by the delightfully hammy supporting actors, like James Carpinello's bad boy Stacee Jaxx, who sings "Wanted Dead or Alive" with his crotch as much as his mouth, and Wesley Taylor's repressed German Franz, who finally gets the chance to rebel against his father with "Hit Me Vith Your Best Shot." Ethan Popp's arrangements and Kelly Devine's choreography help, too (making their surnames quite appropriate), especially when solo songs are split into duets or mashed up for duels. ("I Hate Myself For Loving You" works surprisingly well against "Heat of the Moment.")

The 80s have become a genre at least as much as the modern Broadway musical, and Kristin Hanggi's direction helps the show succeed as a tribute instead of a generic knock-off. From the fake billboards sweeping out into the box seats to the tacky projected palm trees that occasionally jut onto Beowulf Boritt's louche bar, Hanggi forcefully embraces all that's good and bad about the show, speeding through awkward riffs from "We're Not Gonna Take It," acknowledging the fans with an introduction to the Venus Club's strippers set to "Anyway You Want It," and drawing out the irony of hard-to-stage songs like "The Final Countdown," which is now used for the evil German construction conglomerate. It's telling that the program doesn't list the songs of this musical: then again, they're not used as songs so much as they are as citations of authenticity.

With it's limited scope, Rock of Ages isn't a show for the ages, but it is one for all ages, and it's certainly the right show for now: after all, we wanna rock (and laugh).

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