Review: “Rock of Ages”

Adam Michaels (Right) as Stacee Jaxx sings to the crowd Photo by Brett Brett Beiner

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
When: through Oct. 15
Tickets: $45-$60
Phone: 630-530-0111

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

If you’re a fan of the heavy metal glam rock of the late 1980s, you’re likely to be as wildly enthusiastic about the regional premiere of “Rock of Ages” as the opening night audience at Drury Lane Theatre. If not, you can still appreciate the talented, contagiously energetic ensemble that’s doing its best to bring this silly jukebox musical with a book by Chris D’Arienzo to life.

I fall into the latter camp, so I found the show frustrating on a number of counts, despite the strong performances and an on-stage band that seemed to be having a ball. First and perhaps foremost, most of the 28 songs by Journey, Bon Jovi, Styx, Pat Benatar, REO Speedwagon. Twisted Sister, and the like—frenetically arranged and orchestrated by Ethan Popp– are screamed at such an ear-splitting volume that the lyrics are incomprehensible unless you know them in advance. The exceptions are a couple of the hit ballads such as “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” The spoken dialogue is hard to understand, too, making a couple of plot points difficult to follow.

Second, the cliché-laden story is so lame that even positioning it somewhere between affectionate tribute and satirical putdown, then framing it as a rock concert-within-a-play and breaking down the fourth wall, doesn’t make it more bearable or the characters less cartoonish, especially given Scott Weinstein’s broad direction.

The setting is Sunset Strip circa 1987, when big hair and wine coolers were “in,” and seekers and lost souls flocked to Hollywood to become famous. Most of the action takes place in the famed but seedy Bourbon Room, a club owned by aging hippie Dennis Dupree (Gene Weygandt). His assistant, Lonny (Nick Druzbanski, who really knows how to work the audience), also is the narrator, who sets up and guides us through the action, often commenting on it as well.

There are two predictable main plot lines. One involves the seesawing romance between relative newcomers Drew Boley (Russell Mernagh), a would-be rock singer-songwriter working as a busboy at the club, and Sherrie Christian (Cherry Torres), who arrives from Paola, Kansas, hoping to become an actress and gets a job as a waitress. The other concerns an impending threat to the strip’s whole sex, drugs, and rock ;n’ roll lifestyle. A German developer named Hertz Klinemann (George Keating) and his son, Franz (Nick Cosgrove), plan to buy up and tear down the buildings, including the Bourbon Room, to build a mega-mall and clean up the area.

Dennis decides to hold out and hire super-rocker Stacee Jaxx (Adam Michaels, perfect as a preening narcissist) to make a splash that will save the club. Most of the complications in Drew and Sherrie’s on again-off again relationship stem from her infatuation with this conceited star, which leads to them making it in the men’s room and her ending up at a strip club run by Mother (Donica Lynn, who has a powerhouse voice).

Meanwhile, Hertz bribes the Mayor (John Edwards) to implement his demolition plan, causing city planner Regina (Tiffany Tatreau) to quit and spearhead a protest on the Bourbon Room’s behalf. Franz, too, begins to rebel against his authoritarian father, admitting to Regina that what he really wants to do is make candy. And in one of the most bizarre twists of all, Lonny seems to instantly switch sexual orientation, perhaps an excuse for the montage of projections (by Rasean Davonte Johnson) showing him and Dennis traveling the world.

Amusingly, the songs are mashed-up and manipulated to fit the action—or visa versa. Sherrie Christian’s arrival is heralded by “Sister Christian,” and later, of couurse, we get “Oh, Sherrie.” The big opener for the ensemble is a combo of “Feel the Noise/Just Like Paradise/Nothin’ But a Good Time,” and the rousing finale is “Don’t Stop Believing.” “We’re Not Gonna Take It” signals the start of Regina’s protest. Lonny’s switch is to the tune of “I Can’t Fight This Feeling.” The most ironic use of a song may be “I Want to Know What Love Is” to accompany Sherrie’s ill-fated fling with Stacee Jaxx.

Roberta Duchak’s musical direction fits the period, but I wish it were toned down for the sake of clarity. Stephanie Klemmons’ animated choreography is very much in the bump-and-grind mode and could do with more variety. Theresa Ham’s costumes deserve applause for being lots of fun, though I’m not sure they’re strictly accurate.

For me, the funniest moment in “Rock of Ages” was a sight gag with a pizza box. I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s intended. The show just isn’t my cup of tea—or drug of choice—but that’s not really the fault of the production.