Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rock of Ages

When I sat down to read my Playbill at New World Stages last night and realized that someone, Chris D'Arienzo, had actually written a book for Rock of Ages, my first feeling was dread: I feared that we were about to see the hair band version of Mama Mia. I needn't have worried, though: apart from a few pairs of Spandex pants and the prodigious use of hairspray, the two shows are as theatrically distant as the music they celebrate. No one here has taken anything that happens onstage seriously—except the performance of '80s musical mash-ups, which are all lovingly and flawlessly performed. Anything less than that and I could see this being a really long evening...

The action takes place some time in the late '80s on L.A.'s Sunset Strip. Our tour guide through this little slice of pop history is the mulleted former-musician-turned-sound-engineer, Lonny (a very funny and quick-witted Mitchell Jarvis), whose narration provides the audience with the constant wink that this show requires: he reminds us again and again that we're in an Off Broadway theater watching a performance. I won't go into the plot—it's a musical theaterish show, so there's a love story, of course—because that's not why anyone is going to see this show. If you're here, you wanna rock! And rock they do: the band is killer, the sound system is just shy of ear-shatteringly loud and everyone in the cast has a high note. I'm sure it's the stuff of nightmares for vocal coaches, but if you're gonna sing Steve Perry, you better sound like Steve Perry.

The acting—sure, acting: why not?—is really cutting up, cartoon-style; to my mind, this is just as difficult to do well as the Stanislavskian stuff, and more painful to watch when it's done badly. The performers all do a fine job with their stock characters and predictable dialogue. Stand outs include Will Swenson (whom Catherine assures me was "sex onstage" in Hair at the Delacourt this summer) as the David Lee Roth/Axl Rose rock star and Lauren Molina as the geeky activist trying to save the Strip from developers (it's the '80s: greed is still good!). Because they're the love interests, Constantine Maroulis and Kelli Barrett are as much eye candy as anything but they both sing great and have a couple of truly funny moments.

If you don't like any of the songs on this list, then Rock of Ages may not be for you. If your idea of heaven is to slide that well-worn Escape LP out of its sleeve and drop it on the turntable, then you may be one of the legion of middle-aged "small town girls" and "city boys" in evidence all around us last night who hope this "movie never ends/It goes on and on and on and on..."

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