If you’ve been following my blog lately, you’d know that last Saturday, I treated myself to a day in NYC to catch Rock of Ages, which if you’ve REALLY been following this blog, you’d know was a show was on my must-see-this-fall list. Another thing you’d know is that I love ticket discounts, and in an effort to cut costs further, I bring a pile of discounts with me to get tickets fee free. It was with one of those in hand that I tried to secure a seat to Brighton Beach Memoirs, one of my favorite plays by my favorite playwright. See yesterday’s blog to see how that turned out, and to see why I hate Halloween.
So, I tell you all of this because I am wondering if the day, the weather and a bad experience combined to sour my mood for Rock of Ages, thus effecting my reaction to it; all in an effort at full disclosure. But, four days later, I’m over Halloween, mostly over BBM, and yet I still can’t shake my initial reaction to Rock of Ages: to quote a good friend of mine, “Feh.” Let the “review” begin…
At the risk of sounding like a New York Times critic, let me start with an extended metaphor. Rock of Ages is good-looking, but rather bland omelet. All of the ingredients – the ham, the cheese, the peppers, potatoes and tomatoes, if you will – were top notch in quality, but throw them in a pan with a few scrambled eggs to hold them together, and the omelet looks great, but leaves you wanting a different meal altogether.
The Eggs aka The Show Itself: For those of you who haven’t seen it, Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical made up of the rock hits of the 80’s, held together by an actually decent story (on paper that is). The Bourbon Room, a long standing rock club on the Sunset Strip finds itself on the verge of closure when a German with big bucks to spend convinces the city of Los Angeles to allow him to “rehab” the entire area, including similar clubs, strip –uh – “gentlemen’s clubs,” and a newly opened Arby’s. The only way out of the mess is if the club owner can make enough “revenue” to placate the city, or at least go out with a bang. So the owner and his crony decide to hold the final concert of Arsenal, a band they discovered, who made it big, but are now about to lose their lead singer, Stacee Jaxx. It takes very little convincing though, when the owner reminds Jaxx that he holds a secret that could destroy his career. Meanwhile, enter Sherrie, a girl from Kansas who arrives to be an actress, and who meets Drew, barback of The Bourbon Room and wannabe rock star; they fall in love, of course, but things get nasty when Jaxx moves in on Sherrie.
The Peppers aka The Songs: With arguably some of the greatest rock anthems ever written as a score, Rock of Ages can’t really lose on that count. Add to that the positive nostalgia that surrounds the 80’s and it is a no lose situation, score-wise. “I Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and “Oh, Sherrie,” (naturally) are but a few of the gems, which also includes tunes made famous by Foreigner, Styx and Pat Benatar. Ethan Popp (music supervision, arrangements and direction) has done a masterful job at getting these songs to sound incredible, tweaking them just enough to meet the needs of any given scene without destroying the songs we love (Jersey Boys could have used this technique more frequently). Played by the onstage band, who are sometimes playing Arsenal, the songs rock with a passion that only great musicians that love the music can make. The band members include: Henry Aronson, Joel Hoekstra, Tommy Kessler, Jon Webber and Winston Roye. They look to be having a ball, and their energy is genuine and infectious.
The Potatoes aka The Direction and Choreography: Director Kristin Hanggi, best known for Bare: A Pop Opera, a few years ago, has put together a show that is at once impossibly busy, completely focused and never boring to watch. Often, the script calls for the audience to be able to see multiple scenes at once, and Hanggi’s simple yet effective use of the space makes that happen. Her use of visual cues makes the action, which is literally all over the theatre, easy to follow. And if the actors are sometimes obviously “putting on” the 80’s ways of pop culture, I chalk that up to the fact that 90% of the cast and Miss Hanggi herself were either very young or non-existent in the 80’s and thus unable to naturally recreate that singular vibe. Similarly, Kelly Devine’s choreography is clearly well-researched. It is sexy, on the verge of slutty, and chock full of references to hits made famous on MTV for being danced on car hoods or in unison at any number of L.A. locations. And the dancers are up to the task. But like the some of the direction and several heavy-handed allusions to the pop culture of the 80’s in the book, the choreography is repetitive and ends up feeling more like an approximation of the real thing.
The Tomatoes aka the Color of Lights, Sets and Costumes: Beowulf Boritt’s sets recreate the definite feel of cramped 80’s rock clubs that overloaded the “scene” back then, and are appropriately crammed with enough era kitsch. A giant, partial computer screen in the back is used effectively to show us outside the club and to comment on the action – at one point, hilariously, the song titles from an 80’s CD set infomercial starts rolling. Another time, we can see backstage where Stacee Jaxx takes a call from the club owner. “Video killed the radio star,” indeed. Gregory Gale’s costumes are amazingly detailed and feel the most authentic at recreating the period. His Tony nod was well-deserved, and some recognition must be given to the spot on wigs by Tom Watson. Similarly, the lighting provided by Jason Lyons is perfection, from the scene to scene lighting that creates space, mood and focus to the brilliant lighting of the rock concert portions of the show.
The Ham and Cheese aka The Company: There might not be a harder working ensemble on Broadway currently. Each of them (Ericka Hunter, Angel Reed, Katherine Tokarz, Andre Ward, Jeremy Woodard and Michael Minarik) takes on several roles, dances up a storm and provides astounding back up vocals. Justice, played to soulful, mysterious delight by Michelle Mais, is an odd part that really goes nowhere, but the pyrotechnics of her voice and her presence make the performance noteworthy. As the German villains of the piece, Paul Schoeffler (Hertz) and Tom Lenk (Franz) reminded me of Natasha and Boris of Bullwinkle fame, so tongue-in-cheek is their villainy. Schoeffler is in fine voice with the evil-tinged “The Final Countdown” and Lenk is broadly comic and very funny as his effeminate ("I’m German, not gay!") son, who flounces and skips around the set with abandon. I think this one note role would be even funnier had the same ground not been covered better in the recent Legally Blonde, but Lenk himself makes up for any shortcomings with a winning performance.
The three real finds of Rock of Ages are James Carpinello as Stacee Jaxx, Mitchell Jarvis as the narrator, Lonny, and understudy Matthew Stocke, who made his debut that afternoon, as club owner, Dennis. Stocke was so good, balancing the stereotype he is playing with 80’s kitsch and shtick, all while giving the character a streak of humanity. And man, can he sing! Congratulations to him! Jarvis, is a riot, slinking, cavorting and flitting around the stage as the narrator of the piece, equal parts creepy Ben Vereen in Pippin, styling like the narrators in Chicago, and a big heap of sexuality that defies label like the ambiguous Emcee in Cabaret. He knows all of the things he is sending up, and does so with a loving wink and nudge. He got a laugh with nearly every entrance and exit, and never once came across like he was repeating any bit. Finally, James Carpinello scores big time, and is finally in a hit show (Saturday Night Fever and an injury-shortened run in Xanadu preceded this for him). He is the very embodiment of an 80’s rock star, living the high life of excess and nearly destroyed by the very same thing. His performance, while appropriately tongue-in-cheek and obviously a heightened stereotype, also includes a very human edge, making the character likeable. And we get the chance to see what might have been with Xanadu – his scenes with Kerry Butler are explosive magic.
As I reread what I just wrote, it is hard to explain/justify what I’m about to say. I practically rave about every aspect of the show. But I still came away from it underwhelmed and somewhat disappointed. It is campy (like Xanadu), but not enough; it is satire on a bygone time (like Cry-Baby), but not enough. It is simply not the same league as these other two shows that exemplify this subgenre of musicals. If I were the actors in The Story of My Life, I’d be hurt that Maroulis got Tony recognition, but they didn’t. And even if 9 to 5 didn’t live up to its fullest potential, I can see why they scratched their heads wondering why they weren’t nominated for best musical. Clearly, judging from the audience around me, this is a crowd-pleaser. I guess I am in the minority here.
But, no matter how pretty the plate, no matter how good the ingredients, the meal doesn’t necessarily satisfy.
(And I wouldn’t bring anyone under the age of maybe 15; it is pretty dirty in several places, and not just in language, but in gesture and response as well.)