Hair whipping, rock ‘n’ roll and a whole lotta ’80s at Theatre Aspen’s “Rock of Ages”
Theatre Aspen embraces optimism of the 1980s with second summer musical
What: Theatre Aspen presents “Rock of Ages”
When: July 30-Aug. 2
Where: Hurst Theatre, 470 Rio Grande Plaza, Aspen
Tickets and more information: Online at theatreaspen.org, over the phone at 970-300-4474 and in-person at the Hurst Theatre box office.
The creative team behind Theatre Aspen’s “Rock of Ages” didn’t hesitate to embrace the jukebox musical’s 1980s aesthetic with the second mainstage show of the summer, which debuts at the Hurst Theatre Friday night.
“I will say this: there’s a lot of hair-whipping,” choreographer Abbey O’Brien said.
That’s not just a symptom of the year in which the musical takes place — 1987, with a lineup that includes hits of the decade like “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “The Final Countdown.”
Director Hunter Foster was an 80s kid who grew up in what he considers “the age of the music video” and said he fully intends to capitalize on that MTV aesthetic with his rendition of “Rock of Ages,” making it a jukebox musical visually as much as audibly.
Though the style of the show is baked into its context, there was still some evolution and creative tinkering involved in the show’s development for Theatre Aspen, Foster said.
Foster and O’Brien started working on the show nearly two years ago (it was initially slated for the summer of 2020 before, well, you know), and Theatre Aspen’s staging has been through four or five iterations to meet changing COVID-19 protocols, Foster estimates. Adapting the show to meet those constraints and to jive with the actors creatively is a bit like fitting together pieces of a puzzle, he suggested.
“Every time you go into this it’s always a bit of an unknown,” Foster said. “You can plan but then you get in the room and you work with the actors. … It always changes because you learn from each day.”
Change is part of what keeps things interesting, according to O’Brien. Plus, just the chance to produce a show after a drought of performing arts opportunities last year added some spark, she said.
“When you’re in the room together, the collaboration is what’s most exciting. … Whatever iteration we were going to end up doing for the show, that was exciting,” O’Brien said.
The show also came with unique staging challenges. Unlike some classic musicals (like “Chicago,” which Theatre Aspen staged in July and which takes place largely inside a jail), ‘Rock of Ages” comes with a whole deck of venue cards.
“This show jumps all over the place,” Foster said. In that way, it’s more like a movie than a stage show, according to Foster — fitting, then, that the musical was adapted for the screen back in 2012.
The final product audiences will see at the Hurst Theatre is a 90-minute, intermission-free version shortened from the 2-hour-plus original; it’s mostly abbreviated by nips and tucks without many full songs cut from the set list.
(Alas, as much as Foster sought to find a way to keep it in and “as much as it was painful for me to cut,” Survivor’s “The Search is Over” was one to get the ax, though those who have only seen the film and not the stage production of ‘Rock of Ages” won’t miss it because it was omitted from the movie, too.)
The cheery tone of the rock and roll comedy remains intact, Foster noted.
“The 80s also had this great optimism,” Foster said, with attitudes driven by the idea that “anyone’s dream can come true and we can all get along.”
“It’s very different from the cynicism and the way social media sort of affects our world now. … There was just something very rosy about the 80s where you thought anything was possible,” Foster said.
Working with a cast that includes many younger actors — a handful of performers were born in the decade after the songs of “Rock of Ages” debuted — presented a few learning opportunities along the way, Foster and O’Brien said. (Some names and symbols that felt so familiar to Foster didn’t quite ring the same bell for a few of the actors, he noted.)
But there’s still relatability, according to Foster, especially because the jukebox musical is full of tunes that one is more likely than not to have heard on the radio at some point or another. It’s not like today’s music is such a far stretch from the bops and jams of the 80s, he said.
“When I was growing up the old music was like, big band,” Foster said.
“The rock bands in the 80s could be, still, rock bands in 2021. … It still feels current to me,” he added.
Modern ties don’t preclude nostalgia, though. In fact, Foster and O’Brien both hope viewers embrace that optimism of the 80s.
“To go back to a simpler time when all that matters is giving someone a mixtape because you love them, … I think it’s a really great escape from what we’ve all been going through,” Foster said. “It’s something we all need. It’s like an ice cream cone.”
Those who wish to physically embody the spirit of the show are encouraged to do so, O’Brien added.
“I hope that people come dressed (like it’s the) 80s because I hope people want to come experience this show in a really fun way,” she said.
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