Theater review: Rock of Ages at Kingsbury Hall
The touring production of Broadway hit Rock of Ages gets a lot right in capturing its story’s time and place—the Sunset Strip in the late ‘80s—but nothing more so than the outrageous, over-the-top spectacle that was the L.A. rock and roll scene of that era.
The show, appearing in Salt Lake City for just three shows in two days, is light and fluffy for sure, but it’s also the kind of high-energy and funny production that makes a night at the theater safe even for non-theater-lovers. When was the last time you saw a theater audience pumping their “devil horns,” playing air guitar or singing along to Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive”? That’s the kind of thing that happens during a Rock of Ages performance, and the result is a genuinely fun night out, especially for people who lived through, or have an affinity for, the hair-metal heyday of bands like Poison, Whitesnake and Warrant.
Rock of Ages’ success depends primarily on the audience’s love of the music, with dozens of familiar hits delivered throughout its two acts by characters ranging from Sherrie (Shannon Mullen), the wannabe actress who just showed up in LA, to aspiring rocker Drew (Dominique Scott), to grizzled hippie club owner Dennis (Matt Ban). But a simple-yet-satisfying story gives those songs a solid footing that makes Rock of Ages much more than simply a cock-rock revue.
In fact, you could find the roots of the main love story between Sherrie and Drew in the video for Poison’s “Fallen Angel.” The small-town girl Sherrie hops a bus to Los Angeles full of dreams of an acting career, only to get chewed up by shady movie producers and egotistical lead singers before she ends up as an exotic dancer. At the same time, Drew finally finds the courage to write his own songs, inspired by his desire for this new girl in town, only to be taken advantage of by shady music managers who try to turn him into a boy-band pop star. In the meantime, developers want to level all the rock clubs on the Sunset Strip in favor of a “clean and safe” street of strip malls just as the famous band Arsenal is slated to deliver a farewell performance at Dennis’ club.
Will Sherrie and Drew survive their trials and find love together? You can probably guess, but the predictability doesn’t make it any less fun to see how they and the other characters navigate the Sunset Strip via the lyrics of, say, Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian.” The protesters trying to save the Strip’s historic rock clubs turn Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” into an appropriate protest song, and Drew’s emotional version of Warrant’s “Heaven,” turned into a gospel show-stopper, was far more listenable than the actual original song was when it came out.
Throughout the performance, I caught myself wondering if I was laughing AT Rock of Ages, or WITH Rock of Ages, and ultimately it was a little of both. The show is certainly full of self-referential gags, such as when one character mentions John Sununu, and another replies, “Hey, nice ‘80s political reference!” And the character of Lonny (Justin Columbo), who acts as both the club soundman and Rock of Ages narrator, is hilarious from the very start of the show, when he tells the audience, “We’re going back to a sexier time—the Reagan era!” Every time Lonny hit the stage, the audience reacted noisily and happily.
Most of the performances were strong; Mullen’s Sherrie was the highlight among the main characters, although burned-out Arsenal lead singer Stacee Jaxx (Matt Nolan) was always worth watching when he was on stage. Scott’s Drew was a little timid, and his vocals couldn’t reach the same thrilling heights as his co-star Mullen. And when Amma Osei entered the show as strip-club owner Justice, belting out Pat Benetar’s “Shadows of the Night,” it made every other voice on stage seem flat and weak in comparison—that woman can wail!
The set captured the time and place as well as the music did, and the omnipresent rock band on the club’s stage was a highlight of the show. Hell, even the pre-show message to turn off cell phones, delivered via a recording by Whitesnake singer David Coverdale, was hilarious.
Rock of Ages won’t necessarily change your life, but it offers a couple hours of laughs and the chance to relive one of the more inexplicably popular eras of rock music via its soundtrack (Did we really keep listening to Survivor after “Eye of the Tiger”? Rock of Ages offers proof positive). It’s bawdy, silly and ultimately a pretty satisfying experience that is true to its era. Enjoy it while you can (meaning before the Hollywood version hits movie screens this summer).
Rock of Ages completes its Salt Lake City stop Saturday with shows at Kingsbury Hall at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets range from $35 to $62.50, and are available by calling 801-581-7100 or visiting KingsburyHall.org.