REVIEW: Theatre Aspen’s ‘Rock of Ages’ is romp down rock ’n’ roll memory lane
Special to The Aspen Times
What: ‘Rock of Ages,’ presented by Theatre Aspen
Where: Hurst Theatre, Rio Grande Park
When: Through Aug. 21
How much: $80-$120
Jukebox musicals such as “Rock of Ages,” now running at Theatre Aspen through Aug. 21, rely heavily on audience participation for their success. Character, plot and intricate lyrical score — the fulcrum around which the traditional musical turns — is simply not the point. Nostalgia, rather, is. The audience’s collective memory of a different time and place, a youthful, often more innocent-seeming period is the glue that holds the jukebox musical together. Familiarity trumps originality every time.
“Mamma Mia!“ — the queen of the genre — celebrates the songs of 1970s supergroup Abba, whereas ”Rock of Ages“ scoops up the biggest hair metal hits of the 1980s and braids them loosely through a series of standard tropes.
Set in late-1980s Hollywood, the show centers around Drew (Thomas McFerran making a terrific professional debut), a boy from Detroit who works as a barback at the Bourbon Room, a legendary music venue on the Sunset Strip. Drew dreams of one day entering the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon. He’s got the chops, if only he could get the break. Drew meets good-Christian-girl Sherrie (a bright-eyed Giuliana Augello), fresh off the bus from Kansas, packing big dreams of her own. Sherrie longs to be an actress. Drew gets her a gig waitressing at the Bourbon Room where the two, naturally, fall in love. However, all does not stay well in paradise for long. A stupid misunderstanding on their first date causes boy to lose girl before things ever really get going. When studly rock star Stacee Jaxx (a thoroughly smarmy Nathan Cockroft) saunters into the nightclub, Sherrie’s moral compass melts like cold butter on hot popcorn. More trouble ensues. Jaxx — true to his rock star ethos — kicks Sherrie to the curb as soon as the deed is done (ignobly in the Bourbon Room bathroom).
Of course, even the thinnest of paper-thin plots requires further complication. Enter Hilda and Franz (a coiled and mincing Julie Kavanagh and Travis Anderson), the dastardly mother/son developer-team hellbent on cleaning up the sex, drugs and rock scum along the Sunset Strip and turning it into an anodyne, family-friendly strip mall.
Club owner Dennis Dupree (Ben Liebert) is threatened with a city-mandated shut down. Denizens of the Strip — strippers, artists and wannabes — unite in a fight over the value of messy vitality and the future of the Bourbon Room.
All of this is handily revealed through the heavy metal poetics of Poison, Journey, Foreigner, Styx and Whitesnake, among others of this most hirsute music genre — in keeping with the times, most, but not all, of them male. Pat Benatar and Joan Jett numbers make an appearance too.
If these bands were your groove back in the day, “Rock of Ages” is your show. The production’s excellent live band, helmed by music director Eric Alsford and featured upstage center, is fittingly costumed and fully integrated into the show.
What saves “Rock of Ages” from descending into total insipidness is its steady stream of meta commentary, primarily courtesy of the show’s MC/Narrator Lonny Barnett, sidekick to club owner Dupree. David Gordon is a dynamic Lonny who oozes charisma while keeping the shtick coming. Theatre Aspen’s talented cast gives this pap hell and the production shines particularly bright in the big ensemble numbers.
In director Hunter Foster’s staging, camp is king. Cartoon characters and silly bits of business abound, none more hilarious than a montage of mimed vignettes following a surprise coupling near the show’s end.
By staging Sherrie’s deflowering (set to Foreigner’s heart-searing ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is“) as a precursor to the professional lap-dancer to come, Foster ratchets up the raunch at the expense of the love in the song’s title. While visually entertaining, the downside is that when the young lovers finally do come back together, disillusioned but determined to reclaim their integrity, there are no heartstrings in sight to be plucked — none have been established — and the scene falls flat.
But no matter. The best thing about “Rock of Ages” is that it does not pretend to be anything more than what it is: A wickedly fun romp down rock ’n’ roll memory lane. Indeed, along with the band, in many ways this production belongs to hair and makeup designer Daniel Koye and costume designer Gail Baldoni, who present spot-on parodies of ‘80s excess. A parade of over-the-top wigs and scads of leather, lace and gold lame´ transform the ensemble into one big, glittering hairball. (A small misstep is Sherrie’s stiff blonde Farrah Fawcett-do, which overwhelms the actress and looks as if it might send her to the chiropractor by season’s end.)
As of opening night, it appeared the production board had not been properly tuned, resulting in some drowned vocals and muddied guitar solos. Or it could be that the Hurst Theatre tent acoustics are not especially suited for a show of this amplitude. Which argues mightily for, one day, a bricks and mortar theatre on par with the ambitious vision and outstanding talent Theatre Aspen continues to draw.
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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