James Carpinello and Kerry Butler in Rock of Ages. Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Surely one of the hardest aspects of writing a successful musical is coming up with good songs that the audience will remember. Rock of Ages writer Chris D'Arienzo took the easy way out here by filling the show with classic rock songs from the 80s that many people are familiar with. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), the show manages to suck the soul out of the rock 'n' roll, but it's fun and entertaining nonetheless.
The general plot line of the play is predictable and clichéd, but it works. The musical is set on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. A girl from a small town in Kansas moves to LA to become an actress. She takes a job at a legendary bar, the Bourbon Room. In her first visit to the bar, she meets (and inevitably falls in love with) the main character, Drew. Drew is a bartender but aspires to be a rock star. A German businessman convinces the mayor to redevelop the strip and get rid of all the seedy bars, including the Bourbon Room. You can pretty much guess where things go from there.
|rock of ages, presented at the orpheum theatre through october 24. for tickets ($24-$91) and information, see hennepintheatretrust.org.|
It's not too surprising that the rock 'n' roll was mailed in. Drew, the leading man, is played by Constantine Maroulis, a former American Idol contestant. Whenever I saw him, all I could think about was David Letterman's famous line in Cabin Boy: "You're one of those fancy lads, ain't ya?" You can't teach someone how to rock—they either have it or they don't, and with a few exceptions, no one in this cast seems to have it. It makes sense that a former American Idol plays the leading role, as I imagine that similarly soulless productions of many of these songs have been performed on the show.
Further, Gregory Gale's costume design is generic and uninspired. You could go to any Halloween costume store and find similar, pre-made rock 'n' roll costumes. Some of the costumes make reference to popular culture from the 1980s, including an early-era MTV t-shirt. Gale may as well have just wrote "80s" on some of the costumes.
That said, the musical is still very entertaining and funny. D'Arienzo is well aware of how cheesy and clichéd the play is, and has the characters acknowledge that. The best acting performance was turned in by Patrick Lewallen as sound guy/narrator/rock 'n' roll mentor. He sets the plot in motion by mentioning that the production was a musical and musicals need a love interest. At one point he argues with the main character about his fate and hands him a copy of the playbill for the show they're in to prove to him that they're part of a show. His best moment comes when he says he wants to do "deep and thoughtful theater" and is instead doing a "musical with poop jokes and Whitesnake songs." When he's right, he's right.
Despite the songs being heavier on the (eye)roll than the rock, their placement is impeccable. There are many points where cast members alternated lines so effectively that it sounds like normal dialogue. A few lyrics were slightly modified to make a better fit, but for the most part the songs were true to the original versions. There were many great instances, but my favorite was Europe's "The Final Countdown" being played as it seemed that the Bourbon Room was about to be demolished, complete with slow-mo fight scenes during the guitar solo.
One more thing that makes this show so enjoyable is the lighthearted atmosphere. Ushers handed out fake lighters that would light up when pressed, and it felt like a concert at times, with audience members yelling and whistling after songs. The highlight of the night for me was seeing a 50+ year old man in a sportcoat stand up briefly to dance to Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" and point over at the only other people in the theater who were standing, a pack of women (who appeared to range in age from 40 to 70) on the opposite side of the room. The dance moves in the audience during the inevitable final song (Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'") were also as entertaining as anything on stage.
When all was said and done, the rock 'n' roll fan in me was thinking "We're Not Gonna Take It," but the theater fan in me was feeling the "Heat of the Moment." I would certainly recommend this musical to people who don't like loud music, but if you "Wanna Rock," you might be let down.
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