Thursday, March 3, 2011

Hair Metal Madness: a ROCK OF AGES Musical Review!

I've reviewed movies, TV shows, concerts, and comedy shows ... but never have I reviewed a musical here on this blog ... until now!


- This past weekend, I was lucky enough to attend my first full-fledged musical in LA - ROCK OF AGES. Now, while I grew up with a lot of theater and musicals, I hadn't actually seen much since moving to LA, and I had yet to attend the Pantages theater, LA's signature playhouse (located right in the heart of Hollywood on Hollywood and Vine). So what was it that finally got me to visit the Pantages and see my first LA-based musical? It was Rock of Ages - a show comprised entirely of vintage 80's rock and hair-metal songs. As a certified fan of all things 80's and rock, as a man who's seen the likes of Poison, Def Leppard, Foreigner, Styxx, and Van Halen live and in concert, this was a show that seemed specially made for me. The show actually originated here in LA a few years back - eventually, it opened on Broadway, and is now touring the country. It's only fitting that I saw it in LA though, as the musical is set on the Sunset Strip circa the mid to late 80's. It's just like when I saw My Fair Lady in London at the theater in Covent Garden! Umm ... sort of.

So ... how is the show? Well, I enjoyed it, although it works best if you think about it as less of a musical and as more of just a highly-choreographed 80's rock concert. The fact is that the connective tissue between songs - aka the plot - is sorta weak, and very, very cheesy (yep, even by musical standards). My main basis for comparison here is We Will Rock You - the musical based off of the songs of Queen. I wholeheartedly loved that show and I actually thought it's crazy, sci-fi dystopia plot was pretty awesome - and it really helped to give the music a totally different context than what we're used to. In Rock of Ages, the thin plot is basically an excuse to use various 80's staples. I mean, as soon as you realize that one of the main characters is "just a small-town girl, livin' in a lonely world ...", well, you can pretty much guess that things are building towards a climactic rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."

Going deeper though, the show's plot concerns the 1980's Sunset Strip - a haven for sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. LA's new (and in this case fictional) mayor is entertaining a proposal from a Danish businessman who wants to gentrify the Strip and turn it into something more closely resembling a strip mall. As local businesses - like the sleazy dive bar where our main characters hang out - face the prospect of forced closure, the patrons rally to keep the place going. Meanwhile, our main character - Drew - is a would-be rock star who dreams of fame, fortune, and girls girls girls. He has his eyes on Sherrie, the aforementioned small-town girl who's fresh off the midnight train, and trying to make it in Tinseltown as an actress. However, just when Drew seems to be winning over Sherrie, he has to compete for her affections with Stacee Jaxx - an over-the-top rock-star who's like David Lee Roth meets Brett Michaels. It's a pretty simple story, like I said, though again, the main point here is just to find a way to shoehorn in as many 80's rockers and ballads as humanly possible.

And if you're a fan of such music (and I hope you are), you will likely get a huge kick out of the various numbers in this one. It's fun and somewhat funny to hear classics like Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock" and White Snake's "Hear I Go Again ..." used as the centerpieces of melodramatic musical numbers. One thing that I had mixed feelings about though is that a large percentage of the music here consists of mash-ups. Sometimes they are indeed pretty fun and clever ( a mash-up of Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself For Loving You" and Asia's "Heat of the Moment" was a favorite). But sometimes I found myself disappointed that we didn't just get a full, complete, non-mashed-up song. For example, I was psyched to hear the cast bust out Mr. Big's "Be With You," but then annoyed when it was mashed-up with Extreme's "More Than Words."

All in all though, the music is pure aural pleasure if you are a devotee of hair metal and power ballads. If you like your rock monsterous, then Rock of Ages will hit your sweet spot and rock your face in. The cast that I saw here in LA and that's currently touring the country is also very talented. The standout is definitely American Idol alum Constantine Maroulis, who is a total natural at belting out the 80's tunes. What his voice lacks in Dee Snyder-esque grit, it makes up for with a Sebastian Bach-like ability to wail and shriek. The rest of the cast is uniformly good, although I wouldn't say that anyone in particular blew my mind.

Otherwise, the humor of the show is a mixed bag. Some of the jokes work by sheer force of will from the very game cast. Some of the characters like Franz (the flamboyant son of the Danish developer) and Regina (a politically-active hippie chick) are so cartoonish that they'd be grating if not for the charisma of the actors who play them. Plus, the humor definitely falls flat at times when the show goes for Mel Brooks-style wink-at-the-audience humor. I don't know why, for example, the show felt the need to resort to the old "let's check the script to find out what happens to the characters" gag, as popularized by Spaceballs. There are definitely plenty of groan-worthy moments in the script, but it's hard to get too bogged down worrying about 'em, since again, it's really just build-up to the next big 80's-rock musical montage.

So yes, at the end of the day I had a blast with Rock of Ages, and would highly recommend it for any afficionado of hair metal. Seeing songs by the likes of Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, Bon Jovi, and Europe as part of a musical is in and of itself pretty darn entertaining. I don't put this in the same league as We Will Rock You, because it just isn't innovative or clever enough to be considered on that same level of quality. But it is, most definitely, a rockin' good time.

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