In the now long tradition of Jukebox Musicals (read: pretty much the only thing Broadway churns out anymore) along comes Rock of Ages, a tongue-firmly-pressed-in-cheek parody of life in '80s Hollywood.
Basically spoofing every music video and rock band cliché from the Decade of Embarrassment, Rock of Ages is a musical that does nothing more than try to make you smile knowingly at their cleverness. Not that the show is all that clever, but it has it’s moments of “oh yeah! I remember that” and “oh my God, I did that!”
Ages has a familiar tale to tell: Boy works for famous Hollywood night club called Bourbon as a barback, but secretly yearns “to ROCK!” He meets the innocent Kansas farm-girl who has come to L.A. to be a star! Falls in love. She loses her way. He loses his way. They find each other. Things (kind of) work out.
Essentially, there is nothing in Rock of Ages we haven’t seen for years. It’s an oft-told story, but here it is punctuated by a soundtrack of hair-band songs from the '80s, sung in a sort of rock/Broadway hybrid that is both interesting and silly. It’s as if the cast of Glee was doing a Rock Band episode.
Here, the show stars American Idol cast-off Constantine Maroulis who was Tony-nominated for his role, as well as MiG Ayesa who competed in CBS’s short-lived reality series: Rockstar: INXS. Maroulis plays Drew, a soft-spoken guy who has dreams of rocking the house. He falls for Sherrie (Rebecca Faulkenberry), the innocent actress-wannabe who gets a job working at the bar after accidentally showing off her “ass”etts. (And yes, her name was designed to lead up to a finale featuring the classic Steve Perry song.)
Bourbon is owned by Dennis Dupree (Nick Cordero) a tall, gravelly voiced man who clearly hasn’t left the '70s. His sidekick and the “narrator” of the show, Lonny (Patrick Lewallen), seems to always be hanging around but without any sort of real role at the bar. But when a German father/son developing team comes to the Sunset Strip and makes a deal with the mayor (Rashad Naylor in his best Urkel impression) to develop the infamous street into a sort of strip mall, Dupree has to find a way to stop them. He soon discovers that Stacee Jaxx (Ayesa), the lead singer of a popular band called Arsenal, is going solo and asks him if they want to play their farewell concert at his club. He figures this will bring in enough tax revenue to keep their business open.
But things don’t go exactly as planned. The developers are foiled by a whacky activist named Regina (pronounced like vagina) played by Casey Tuna (in her best Joan Cusack/Julie Brown impression). Stacee Jaxx proves to be a problem on his final show night, putting Drew front and center on stage where he blows away the audience. But with the threat of the club closing, Drew’s chance at stardom looks slim. And Sherrie… well… when things don’t go right for her, how do you think she’ll earn enough money to survive? Three words.
Live. Nude. Girls.
Nothing in this show is surprising, but the sometimes clever/sometimes sophomoric spoofing of '80s rock videos is kind of fun. The musical numbers are mostly mash-ups of songs in the style of the “Elephant Love Medley” from Moulin Rouge. Unfortunately, that can be problematic when you start getting into a song and then it shifts to another in the middle of it. Everything just seems like a big goof, without anything to really grab onto. The only time this works is when Drew takes Sherrie on a date up in the Hollywood Hills. Using a number of '80s ballads, the two sing their way around their feelings in a hilarious montage of cheesy '80s video stereotypes.
Stacee Jaxx’s songs tend to be the most successful because the creators allow him to sing the entire song rather than switching it to other songs three or four times during the middle of it. He also has a stronger voice and more charisma than Moroulis who seemed to be “pitchy” throughout a lot of the show. Faulkenberry has a strong voice, but she too struggled with a few patches of notes where her pitch seemed strained.
The rest of the show is a mess of clichés, over-wrought story ideas, an explosion of songs (“let’s see how many we can fit into one show!”) and a confused tone. Frequently, the narrator commented on the action, even having a discussion with Drew at one point about the fact that they were both, in fact, in a Broadway show. It’s just kind of weird and strange, but does have its pleasures.
When the ballads begin and the audience lifts up the fake lighters they were given as they walked into the auditorium, it truly does bring you back to that time. For those who didn’t live through the '80s, it might be amusing in an “OMG” way, but for those of us who were there, it does get a bit nostalgic.
It’s funny to think back and realize how oversexed and drug-induced that time was. But what’s even stranger is how tame it was compared to today. Back then, talk about oral sex and drinking Schnapps was about as risqué as you would get. In my high school, it was the big gossip if someone actually had sex and I remember the enormous scandal when a guy was caught getting a blow job from another student in the hallway after school. Those were big deals. Bigger still was going to a house or field party and drinking rum and coke or beer from a kegger. Discussions of what “base” someone got to were all the rage, but all in all, it was pretty tame. Sure, MTV had its debut in the '80s and as videos became more popular, so did sexual overtones in videos.
I remember as a gay man being turned on by the sight of hot rockers in leather and spandex. (Hello David Lee Roth and Joe Perry!) Half-naked pictures of guys, much less actual porn, were not as readily available as they are now what with the internet. So music videos were like my porn. The inside album sleeve of Prince’s 1999 with his butt half-exposed was like candy for me. There just was no other outlet for discovering your sexuality, straight or gay.
But now, you look at what is offered to teenagers and it’s almost shocking. Not that I’m a prude, but sex, drinking and all sorts of drug concoctions are everyday things for kids. Nothing shocks them and everything is available. It’s pretty sad, but I guess for our parents, they were shocked by all that we were exposed to.
I liked growing up in the '80s. It was a strangely innocent time of experimentation and change. Teen movies were about real issues (bless you John Hughes) and we, as teenagers, actually spent time together, not just texting or chatting online all day. We had house parties, we went to the mall, we went to concerts…. and despite all our music being borderline crap, we loved it. It spoke to us. Pat Benetar empowered women, Survivor and R.E.O. Speedwagon sang about what we had in our souls, and Whitesnake and Poison? Well, they made us want to go out and get wild. Crazy, sexy, wild.
Not that I ever did, mind you. I was a total nerd and didn’t even have my first taste of beer until my high school graduation party. Actually, I take that back. I had a sip of Rum and Coke at a very tame basement party at a friend’s house, where, the next day, they tried to convince me I had asked out this girl. When I insisted I didn’t, they said I must have been too drunk to remember. From that one sip of alcohol I apparently had gone straight, attempted to hit on a girl and then blacked out.
Oh, sweet innocence.
But as for the memory of it all? Rock on!
Rock of Ages is playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through Feb. 27. For tickets, contact BroadwayLA,org or RockofAges Musical.com. Photo by Joan Marcus.