Thursday, July 11, 2019

40 (2019-2020): Review: ROCK OF AGES (seen July 10, 2019)

“Don’t Stop Believin’”

It’s been well over three years since Rock of Ages, the popular jukebox musical featuring a lineup of eardrum-shattering power ballads from the ‘80s, closed out its six-year Broadway run. Judging by the excitement of the surprisingly youthful crowd on hand at its Off-Broadway revival, many ready to wave their arms and those little artificial lighters, the show’s producers haven’t stopped believin’ that the show’s rock is ageless.
Mitchell Jarvis and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
It’s no longer news that Chris D’Arienzo’s book, stitched together as an excuse to present a hand-clapping, toe-tapping, headbanging array of ‘80s evergreens that—even if you were there but weren’t paying attention—wormed their way into your brain if you were anywhere near a radio. Rock of Ages is one of those shows that expresses itself through the lyrics of totally unrelated songs from an eclectic bunch of sources. It brings back the hair metal, anthem rock, pop rock, glam metal, call-them-what-you-will songs of Journey, Pat Benatar, Jon Bon Jovi, Styxx, Twisted Sister, Foreigner, Whitesnake, Europe, Poison, Steve Perry, and a list that, as the song says, goes on and on and on and on. 
CJ Eldred. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
It’s the kind of show where Sherrie (Kirsten Scott), the girl, explains to Drew (CJ Eldred), the boy, that she’s “Just a small town girl, Livin' in a lonely world,” from Journey’s “Small Town Girl,” and he sings back, “Just a city boy, Raised in South Detroit.” Even Sherrie’s name comes from Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie.” Reasons thus are found to insert such chart-toppers as “I Wanna Rock,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “Here I Go Again,” “The Final Countdown,” “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and, among scads of others, of course, “Don’t Stop Believin’.” This new production even gets to blast Def Leppard’s title song, the group having agreed to lift the embargo on its use. 

The New World Stages production—one of many that have rocked international stages over the years, not to mention a Hollywood movie version starring Tom Cruise—celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Broadway production. It appears to be a pretty close replica of the one I saw sometime back in the day with Constantine Maroulis playing Drew. Mitchell Jarvis, the original Lonny, is back again, having played the role over 1,200 times.
CJ Eldred. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Lonny is the sound man at the Bourbon Room, a rock club on L.A.’s Sunset Strip owned by Dennis (Matt Ban) and threatened with demolition by a greedy German developer, Hertz (Tom Galantich), and his oh-so-fey son Franz (Dane Biren). This sets up the central conflict as the club needs to find a way to save itself. 
Tom Galantich, Tiffany Engen, Dane Biren. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Lonny also serves as the show’s Puck-like, mischievous narrator, and Jarvis, who exudes personality from every pore, plays him as freshly as if he never played him before. His material—much of self-referential about the show itself—may be banal and its humor puerile but it takes a special cocktail of dancing, singing, and comedic flair to sustain a part like his with such consistently bubbling fizz for nearly two and a half hours. 
Tiffany Engen, Dane Biren, Tom Galantich. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
There’s not much to say about the flimsy book. It involves, firstly, the threat to the Bourbon Room and its block to make way for a neighborhood transformation akin to what happened to Times Square over the past few decades. But, naturally, there's also a principal romance between Drew, a long-haired, wannabe rock star, doing janitorial work at the club, and Sherrie, who wants to be an actress and becomes a waitress at the same place. She has a fling with the ultra-vain rock star, Stacee Jaxx (PJ Griffith, in the role Cruise handled on film). It's highlighted by a rowdy sex-in-the-toilet-stall scene but she gets dumped and becomes a stripper before finally hooking up with Drew. There are also a couple of additional romantic subplots, one straight, one gay, both of them broadly farcical.
PJ Griffith and company, Photo: Matthew Murphy.
You go to Rock of Ages for its music, not its plots or subplots, or its string of incessantly raunchy juvenilia, with countless humping movements, genital references, and grade school-level naughtiness, which these adults revel in as if they’d just been given permission to smirk about boobies and nipples. The music, though, if it’s up your alley, certainly shivers the timbres [sic!] with a succession of vocally explosive and physically dynamic performances. 
Mitchell Jarvis, Matt Ban, CJ Eldred. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
For me, though, the continuously over-the-top acting of the cartoonish characters, the exaggerated situations, and the succession of one amped-up power ballad after the other took its toll well before the over-long show concluded. Nevertheless, Kristin Hanggi’s pumped-up direction has made the show a worldwide hit, so who am I to complain?
Jeannette Bayardelle, Kirsten Scott. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Also responsible for Rock of Ages’ popularity are Gregory Gale’s vivid costumes, which both satirize and recreate the excesses of the 80s; Beowulf Boritt’s set for the seedy Bourbon Room, with a back wall for Zachary Borovay’s many projections; and Jason Lyons’s concert-style lighting. 
Kirsten Scott. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Eldred and Scott as Drew and Sherrie give spot-on performances, the latter—who can dance, sing, and totally rock a bikini—making an especially strong impression on both the ears and eyes. They’re joined by an attractive, nubile, and talented ensemble. Watching them is as much fun as hearing them sing. 
PJ Griffith and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Unlike Jersey Boys, which also moved from Broadway to a New World Stages venue, Rock of Ages is having a limited run, so it won’t be rocking here for ages. If you wanna rock, now’s the time to do it.

New World Stages
340 W. 50th St., NYC
Through September 29