Theater Review: ROCK OF AGES (National Tour reviewed at the Hollywood Pantages)

Post image for Theater Review: ROCK OF AGES (National Tour reviewed at the Hollywood Pantages)

by Samuel Garza Bernstein on March 22, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


The cast of Rock of Ages is riotously hell bent on making you have a good time. They beat you into submission with energy, wide smiles, and hair—lots and lots of great big 80s hair.

It’s a jukebox musical, with a slender thread of a boy-meets-girl story piecing together some of the biggest hits of groups like Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Whitesnake, Foreigner, and Quiet Riot, among others. The boy, Drew, wants to be a famous rocker. The girl wants to be an actress. Her name is Sherrie. Oh. (As in Steve Perry’s Oh, Sherrie—Get it?) They find, fumble, and recover true love. And a German developer wants to raze all of the Sunset Strip, including the Bourbon Room, a rock club where most of the action takes place.

You aren’t obligated to take the plot all that seriously. Even the show itself disclaims any studious attempt at storytelling. The narrator (or “conjuror” as he sometimes refers to himself) reads from “Broadway for Dummies” at one point; at another juncture he actually waves the show’s program at one of the characters to emphasize the point that it is all make-believe, and in an aside to the audience, he complains that he would rather be doing “serious” theater instead.

There is one stab at a moment of emotional truth—a climactic point in the second act when the narrator makes a big show of removing the veil of fantasy to tell our hero that he must actively choose what he wants in life. Maybe Stephen Schwartz appreciates the homage. The entire scene is practically lifted word for word from Pippin.

Never mind. No one goes to Rock of Ages for the story. It’s about rock and roll!

Except that Rock of Ages has almost nothing to do with actual rock and roll music. Its performance roots and singing style is set firmly in musical theater—Miss Saigon rather than Sister Christian. Yet that seems to suit the audience just fine. Those of an age to remember these songs from junior high semi-formals, senior high proms, and everything in between, are more turned on by nostalgia than a desire for actual, deafening, druggy, sex-fueled stadium rock.

The tone of the evening is closer to Bette Midler Lite, with a whole lot of playful gay innuendo.

In one of the kookiest contextual song choices, REO Speedwagon’s I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore is sung as a duet between two guys; the owner of the Bourbon Room, an aging rocker named Dennis, and the narrator who doubles as Lonny, the Bourbon Room’s sound tech. It isn’t exactly homoerotic since there isn’t anything remotely erotic about it, but it gets the biggest cheers of the evening.

Actually, there’s a surprising lack of sex throughout the show. It’s all come on, with endless hip thrusts and gyrations that accompany every lyric, every gesture, every wink, every breath… But notwithstanding all of the emphasis on this particular part of the body, the performers are directed to behave as if they have no actual genitalia—six of one, half-dozen of the other, a chorus comprised of Barbies and Kens who sing constantly about getting laid but never exchange any bodily fluids. And there is an almost complete absence of any of the substances that allowed so many 80s icons to attempt comebacks on Celebrity Rehab.

But setting aside the lack of sex, drugs, and rock and roll—where the hell are the women?

Rock of Ages has no room for the Bangles, the Go-Go’s, Bow Wow Wow, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts—let alone Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, whose song catalogues are probably far too expensive for this sort of thing.

There is one Pat Benatar song in the show: Hit Me with Your Best Shot—and it is sung by a man.

Justin Colombo plays the narrator/Lonny like a demented cross between Gene Simmons and  Rip Taylor. His energy can be infectious—in both senses—but in the end you can’t help but love him. You’re afraid he might not let you leave until you do. And his chemistry with Matt Ban as Dennis, the owner of the Bourbon Room is one of the show’s most tangible emotional connections. Ban is natural and earthy, even in wings and white platform shoes.

The five-piece band, led by Darren Ledbetter, is terrific. They accomplish a whole lot with very little. Dominique Scott and Shannon Mullen are appealing as the young lovers. We don’t get nearly enough of Amma Osei, who plays two different roles and never gets her own song. She is the real deal—a singer whose voice and presence demand attention.

Rock of Ages is undeniably fun. Yet there is one sin I cannot forgive: It throws away Foreigner’s I Want to Know What Love Is, using this classic for little more than a quick laugh. Don’t they know how iconic and important it is? I bet a solid plurality of the audience lost their virginity listening to that song—and that’s the essence of true musical nostalgia.

photos by Scott Suchman

Rock of Ages
national tour
reviewed at Hollywood Pantages
ends on March 25, 2012 in Los Angeles

tour continues through June 26, 2012
tour EXTENDED through May, 2013
tour extended indefinitely
(currently selling through 2017)
for cities and dates, visit Rock of Ages

Leave a Comment