On the agenda: a nostalgia ride back to the late 1980s. Would you like a nunchuck with that?
The second national tour of “Rock of Ages,” which brought its gussied-up, goofy self to the Saroyan Theatre Monday for an evening of inspired glam-metal revelry, appeared to drive the older couple sitting in front of me out of the theater two-thirds of the way through the first act. Ah, the depravity of it all: the crashing guitar solos, the throbbing power-metal ballads, the lingerie-inspired stripper garb for the ladies, the big-hair moments for the gents — all positively shocking, right?
Well, perhaps for those subscribers who bought the season package to see “My Fair Lady.” But for all its bluster and bravado, the biggest “danger” in the amiable and witty “Rock of Ages” is choking with laughter at the gratuitous wine-cooler references scissored into the plot. (There is referential trauma associated with Mr. Bartles and Mr. Jaymes that stings to this day.) The music of the era — lovingly represented in this jukebox musical by nearly two dozen offerings from such icons as Journey, White Snake, Poison and Pat Benatar — might have driven parents crazy at the time. But for all the high-octane brashness of these rockers, there was something even back then that was sweet and silly about their studded belts, extravagantly teased tresses, endless guitar solos and slo-mo hair swishing. What “Rock of Ages” manages to do is poke loving fun at the genre in a slick package made up of equal parts camp, grit and adoration, along with a cheerful dose of mocking the musical-theater genre.
The show continues Tuesday for one more performance at the Saroyan.
As for this production itself — I was impressed, even though the first act seemed a little flat to me in terms of getting into the groove of the show. (I freely admit, too, that while I recognize most of the tunes, I’ve never had much of an emotional or nostalgic connection with this music, so perhaps it was a little harder sell for me.) By the second act, however, I really started getting caught up in the experience.
I haven’t seen the Broadway version or the first Equity national tour, but I thought this was a well-performed show with strong acting and a crisp production design.
The plot of “Rock of Ages” is a wisp, of course. Jukebox musicals are famous for it. The narrator, a goofball named Lonny (Justin Colombo, in a performance so aggressively annoying yet amiable that he manages to cross the line into lovable), shares with us the basic structure of the story: a renowned bar on the Sunset Strip named the Bourbon Room will face the wrecking ball after a nefarious German developer and his effete son pay off the mayor and envision a cleaned-up neighborhood.
Along the way we meet the musical’s love interest: the earnest rocker Drew (Dominique Scott, whose strong voice and sweet stage presence make him a standout) and the plucky wannabe actress Sherrie (Shannon Mullen, who brings a tough sheen to a role that could be bland). When a hedonistic singer named Stacee Jaxx (Matt Nolan, with a nice spin on the rock-god persona) pops up to sing at the Bourbon, his romantic conquest of Sherrie throws the expected wrench in her chances with Drew.
All this is an excuse to work in the songs, of course. (The obligatory “We Built This City” comes when explaining the rich history of the Sunset Strip, and when Jaxx gives an interview about his life, he sings “Wanted Dead or Alive.”) Chris D’Arienzo’s book delights in interpreting familiar tunes in what you might consider non-traditional ways, which is what gives the musical its biggest laughs. An inspired duet between Lonny and the bar owner, Dennis (a plucky and accomplished Matt Ban) of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is a high point of the show. (Though ostensibly a homoerotic moment, it’s played without a trace of sensuality. You could say the same for the show overall, which is replete with skimpy costumes and sexual references but isn’t exactly steamy.)
Two other actors are particularly fine: a granola-gal named Regina (Katie Postotnik), who vows to fight the demolition of the Bourbon Club; and Amma Osei as a strong-voiced strip-club owner.
For all the cleverness of the conceit and the talented execution of the show, there’s one major point that I feel ambivalent about when it comes to “Rock of Ages.” For me, the self-referential, poking-fun-at-musicals theme has just about gone as far as it can go in musical theater. Breaking the fourth wall is one thing, but the repeated references to being in a musical — and at one point a character actually holds up the program of the show itself — start having diminished returns.
But for musical theater newbies, perhaps those jokes are right on target.
In the meantime, I’ll just be working to get “Cum on Feel the Noise” out of my head today. “Rock of Ages” will do that to you. Perhaps I should indulge in a wine cooler?