Some might say that the ’80s were a bad time for music, but five minutes of watching Rock of Ages, the riveting musical playing until March 25 at Pantages Theatre, would prove any naysayer wrong.
The musical takes everything good about music in the ’80s and amplifies it. From the showy guitar solos to denim vests to hair-whipping that would make Willow Smith jealous, this musical covers all of the glam rock bases.
Set in Los Angeles, the show tells the tale of The Bourbon Room, a rock ‘n’ roll club on the Sunset Strip, and highlights the up-and-coming musicians that perform at the club.
The story follows Drew Dillenbeck (Dominique Scott), an aspiring rocker and employee of The Bourbon Room who finds love on his quest to become a famous musician.
This love interest is none other than Sherrie Christian (Shannon Mullen), an aspiring actress who waits tables at the venue. Unfortunately, both their dreams are put into question when The Bourbon Room falls into danger of being shut down by rich German moguls.
The result of this ode to the ’80s is a show that feels like a giant, face-melting arena rock concert: Every song energizes the audience and makes the theater feel like a stadium. With classics like “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock,” audience members will walk away feeling like they’ve been transported back two decades to one of the most spectacular, entertaining concerts of their lives.
What really saves this show from coming off like a karaoke musical, however, is the gripping script, written by Chris D’Arienzo. The show could have easily fallen into nauseatingly campy clichés, yet D’Arienzo not only acknowledges these pitfalls as he breaks the fourth wall with the narrator but uses them to his advantage, often mocking the fact that the show is, in fact, a musical.
At one point, the narrator even stops to hand the main character a Rock of Ages playbill, telling Drew that “it’s the musical you’re in.” It’s sassy, well-defined characters and quippy lines like these that make Rock of Ages just as much about great comedy as about great music.
Of course, every production needs a great cast to bring a script to life, and Rock of Ages has exactly that. Every performer has not only the acting chops to bring their own quirks to the characters but also the necessary vocal chops to carry the huge songs that drive the musical.
Dominique Scott’s powerful Steve Perry-esque voice brings down the house, especially in the final number “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Justin Colombo also gives an unforgettable performance as Lonny Barnett, the show’s narrator, getting the audience in stitches with just a few words and facial expressions.
Steven Michael Kane’s wonderfully flamboyant and hilarious portrayal of Franz, the son of the evil German mogul Hertz Klinemann, is another standout.
He injects life into every single word he speaks, providing a stark — and hilarious — contrast to his militant father. Kane evoked raucous laughter from the audience with his hair flips and overzealous, slightly effeminate dance moves.
The production also has the added benefit of Adam John Hunter’s strong direction. Hunter had previously worked on seven different productions of Rock of Ages in various positions, and his familiarity with the show is apparent.
He is able to draw out nuanced performances through the show and smartly allows his actors to add elements that are not written into the script.
The staging, too, is efficient, clever and makes good use of the set design, which features the interior of The Bourbon Room as the main space. The stage is supplemented by a disappearing set piece that acts as a number of different rooms at different times, and an LED screen behind the set effectively provides any additional visuals needed to fill out the scene.
There’s really not much to complain about with Rock of Ages. The show has all the makings of a great modern musical — inspiring music, larger-than-life performances and a snappy book that pokes fun at the typical clichés inherent in musicals.
If Rock of Ages’ grungy ’80s charm doesn’t make viewers fall in love with glam rock, nothing will.