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Review - Broadway in Chicago's Rock of Ages

The ensemble of Rock of Ages
The ensemble of Rock of Ages
Photo courtesy of Broadway in Chicago

National tour of Rock of Ages


Rock of Ages is the silliest, loudest, crudest and most thoroughly enjoyable musical to come from the songbook of the mullet-rocking ‘80s. For those who can tell the difference between Journey and Foreigner (and are not ashamed to admit it), the show is a mindlessly awesome romp. As for those who think REO Speedwagon is an early brand of club drug and who never rocked chartreuse-leg warmers in a Jazzercize class - You too can embrace the pandering, vulgar and infectiously enthusiastic ode to the era of Reagan, Whitesnake, and Wine Coolers.

The current tour of book-writer Chris D’Arienzo’s patently unoriginal of tale of a small town boy (born, of course, in South Detroit) and a winsome Judas-Priest-loving lass finding love and music in 1987 Los Angeles comes with a caveat. This is not, as was the case the last time Rock rolled through town, an Equity show, despite the Equity prices you’ll pay for tickets.

This troupe is comprised of a congenial group of hard-working youngsters who, on the whole, lack the polish and the consistent vocal awesomeness of the previous incarnation. Which isn’t to say ROA isn’t enjoyable. It is, after all, a show that hardly demands subtle character work and operatic vocal technique. To be sure, Night Ranger and Poison aren't known for their intellectual lyrics and layered musical motifs. Nope, this is three-chord rock ‘n roll at its tooth-peeling finest, wherein an enthusiastic set of wildly gesticulating devil horn fingers are worth a thousand pitch-perfect harmonies.

Moreover, when there are beer vendors hawking their wares down the aisle during the show (as there are here), you can be pretty sure that the audience is not going to be divining Sondheim-level s of metaphor and subtext from what’s transpiring on stage. You can’t buy beer and pay complete attention to the lyrical intricacies of Survivor. Rock of Ages doesn’t expect you to.

The story – basically the excuse to stage one raucous arena rock anthem after another – is slight. The famed Bourbon night club on L,A.’s sunset strip has fallen prey to nefarious (and weirdly German) developers who plan on razing it for a Footlocker. Among other dire consequences, the plan would throw barback/aspiring rock god Drew (Dominique Scott) and newly arrived waitress/aspiring movie star Sherrie (Shannon Mullen) out of work. As Falstaffian prankster Lonny (Justin Colombo) serves as a “dramatic conjurer,” narrating the tale and occasionally prancing across the stage in his tighty-whities.Will Sherrie and Drew find love? Will the Bourbon avoid the wrecking ball? Did Pat Benatar spur a cottage industry in black latex leggings?

While Scott and Mullen are adequate if not spectacular as the romantic leads, Rock of Ages is hilariously dominated by Matt Nolan as Stacee Jaxx, a party-animal guitar god who has leopard-skin pants so tight they’re practically inside-out and a decadent lifestyle that founded on sex, drugs, rock and roll and, like Jim Morrison before him, some dubious activities with small farm animals. Nolan takes the sneer and the bombast to heights that make the guys from Spinal Tap look like models of decorum and restraint.

Rock of Ages could benefit from a better sound design –seat-vibrating volume is all well and good, but the sound’s power is often undermined by muddy acoustics. Then again, crystalline clarity is not what songs like “Cum on Feel the Noize” are about. And when lead guitarist Chris Cicchino gets the spotlight, you’ll wanna whip out a lighter and demand an encore.

For additional reviews of Broadway in Chicago productions click here (Mary Poppins), here (Next to Normal) here (Working) here (rain), here (Les Miserables), here (9 to 5), here (Wicked) here (Traces) here (Billy Elliot), here (The Addams Family), here (In the Heights) and here (A Bronx Tale ).