BOTTOM LINE: An intelligently silly musical full of '80s rock hits...tons of energy onstage and off. Go, rock out, and have a great time.
I had heard a few things about Rock of Ages before I saw it. I knew it was a jukebox musical (like Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys), but instead of using music from just one group, Rock of Ages expands its reach to a genre: rock music from the '80s. I knew that Rock of Ages features, among others, Constantine Maroulis, of American Idol fame. And after a run off-Broadway last fall, the producers decided to move the show to Broadway. In doing so, they decided to lower the standard top price (making Rock of Ages the cheapest musical now on Broadway) and to sell drinks during the show. Clearly, the producers had guts...but was the move to Broadway a wise choice?
Although reviews haven’t come out as I write this, I suspect that Rock of Ages will be a hit. I had a great time, and from what I could tell, everyone around me did as well. To be fair, this may be partly due to the familiar tunes, including “More Than Words,” “Sister Christian,” “Shadows of the Night,” “We Built This City,” and “The Final Countdown." Audiences like familiar music which is why revivals and jukebox musicals are so popular on Broadway...they seem less risky to producers. Of course, not all jukebox musicals work; I still recoil at the wretchedness that was Good Vibrations. And I suspect that the key to a successful jukebox musical has less to do with the specific choice of songbook than one might think.
Of course, Rock of Ages also has alcohol, and tipsy audiences may be more easily pleased. Given my tendency to glare at fellow audience members who unwrap candies, and all but bludgeon those who have their cell phones out, I had wondered if I’d be bothered by the whole selling-drinks-during-the-show thing; I wasn’t at all. In fact, I hardly noticed it. A sheet in the playbill explains that to buy a drink during the show, you need to buy chips before, alleviating the need for any financial transactions. So the server merely runs down the aisle with some drinks and hands them to audience members in exchange for chips. While I would hate for this practice to become a trend on Broadway, I have to say that for this show and this show only, it seems to work. The experience feels more like a rock concert than a “Broadway musical," and if Rock of Ages succeeds (as I suspect it will), it will be because of this feeling.
Rock musicals are tough...so often, the performers are on stage trying to “melt your face," and audiences are sitting politely in their seats, because they are at a musical, and that is how one behaves. Rock of Ages, on the other hand, is more of a musical-rock concert hybrid, one that thrives on the energy of the audience. While I missed the off-Broadway run, my guess is that Rock of Ages works even better on Broadway, since a bigger audience means more energy. The energy was palpable as soon as I entered the theatre, and continued to build as more people came in. Rock music plays as the house fills, and this helps create the feeling of a concert; the recorded tunes work as a kind of opening act. So when the house lights go down, the audience is primed and ready to rock. And they do. From talking to someone I know who is involved in the show, audiences are going crazy every night. And it isn’t just limited to people in their 30s and 40s–the woman in front of me must have been at least 65, and bopped along to every song in the show.
So is Rock of Ages just a silly, mindless piece of entertainment, Broadway junk food, so to speak? Perhaps, but if so, it is done very well. Some might claim that the book by Chris D’Arienzo is dumb, but I disagree, I'd say it is intelligently silly, in the style of many “traditional” musical comedies. It is funny when it should be (which is a lot), but D’Arienzo also draws from the lyrics of the songs in the show. For example, a line in which one character is said to be “taking the midnight train” anticipates the final song, Journey’s “Don’t’ Stop Believin'.” But because the line and the song are separated by at least 20 minutes, it doesn’t come off as a clumsy joke (as one might expect), but rather a natural part of the script.
One of the best things about the book is that every character is likeable and you enjoy watching them. Of course, the actors all have a lot to do with this, every one is terrific (and they all sing their faces off). I always love watching Amy Spanger, who plays the heroine Sherrie; she is lovably naïve and tantalizingly sexy at the same time. Constantine Maroulis plays the hero Drew, and is surprisingly sweet, with a constant “aw shucks” quality about him. James Carpinello is suitably sleazy as the famous rocker Stacee Jaxx, and Mitchell Jarvis is great as Lonny, a barhand who also narrates the show. Jarvis will likely be compared to Jack Black, but I most enjoyed his character’s sexual ambiguity; Lonny does not seem strictly straight or gay (in many ways he is like the Emcee in Cabaret) and I think this makes a staple character like Lonny that much more enjoyable. However, my favorite is Wesley Taylor, who plays Franz, the son of the German developer who wants to tear down the rock club in which the show takes place. Taylor adorably livens every scene he is in, and when his big number comes in Act 2, the house goes wild.
The set is suitably large scale with an upstage screen on which various projections are shown. (A warning to those attempting the lottery: the lottery seats are apparently on the extreme sides of the orchestra, and I’m told you miss most of these projections. You may also feel a bit left out of the energy of the audience). Overall, the show looks fantastic. But I was even more impressed by how it sounded. Of course, one expects a show like this to be loud, and it is. But never uncomfortably so. But more importantly, I understood every single lyric, and heard every single spoken word. Even when the girls behind me were singing along with the songs, I could still hear the singers on stage. This is not a small feat in a show like this, and I think Peter Hylenski’s sound design does a lot to make this show work as well as it does.
While most people will love Rock of Ages, if you’re a true theatre snob- one who eschews anything that smacks of popular entertainment this may not be the show for you. And a warning to parents: some of the material is a bit racy, I’d give it a PG-13 rating. Personally, I enjoy all types of theatre, as long as they are done well and Rock of Ages is a silly collection of '80s rock tunes that is also a surprisingly enjoyable piece of musical theatre. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of anything I would change about it. As a girl behind me said to her friends during intermission, “It’s the '80s, it’s happy hour, it’s the best time of my life!” While I wouldn’t go quite so far, I have seen almost every new Broadway musical this season (except for the two still in previews), and will say that if you want to see a fun new musical and come out with a smile on your face, I’d definitely recommend Rock of Ages.
(Rock of Ages plays at the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St. Performances are Mondays at 8pm, Tuesdays at 7pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm. Running time is approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. Tickets are $46.50-$119.00, and there is a lottery for $26.50 seats held 90 minutes before each show. For tickets visit ticketmaster.com, and visit rockofagesmusical.com for more information.)