Part way through the second act of Rock of Ages, the narrator describes what we are watching as a combination of fart jokes and Whitesnake songs. But while there isn’t necessarily a huge preponderance of potty humour, and only a single song from that particular 80s hair band, it does encapsulate nicely what this jukebox musical is all about.
In a nutshell, Rock of Ages is the story of Drew and Sherrie (it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the name Sherrie was chosen to ensure Steve Perry’s 1984 hit could be used). He is a rock wannabe, and she has aspirations for a Hollywood film career. Meeting in the rock music club, Bourbon Room, on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, the two fall in love. Against the love story backdrop is a secondary story of a German developer who convinces the Mayor of L.A. to abandon the “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll” lifestyle that permeates the Strip, for something more wholesome. Part of those plans includes the demolition of the Bourbon Room. In an effort to save the club, its owner concocts a plan to bring rock star Stacee Jaxx and his band Arsenal, who have recently announced their break-up, for a final concert back to the rock venue where they got their first break.
Let’s face it, this celebration of the 1980s is not about Chris D’Arienzo’s book. Thankfully though, with its predictable love story, coupled with a sometimes breathtaking silliness, Rock of Ages doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is.
Tapping into the nostalgia of a generation looking to relive their glory days, the show largely succeeds because it tries not to take itself too seriously. That in itself might be enough to like this bombastic musical, but book writer D’Arienzo couldn’t leave well enough alone, layering what turns out to be a much more serious love story on top of the ridiculousness. The result is as if there are two shows fighting each other. At times there is such an insurmountable gap between the silly and serious that the two leads, Marlie Collins and Kale Penny, come across as flat against the over-the-top nonsense. Which is a real shame, as both Collins and Penny have terrific voices.
There are some nice vocal performances from others in this likable cast as well. Stand-outs include Lauren Bowler as activist Regina (rhymes with vagina), and Kieran Martin Murphy as Bourbon Room owner, Dennis. Brett Harris embraces his dual roles as narrator and Dennis’ side-kick with wild abandon, and Katrina Reynolds gives a Tina Turner-esque turn as strip club owner, Justice. The best performance of the evening though comes from Paige Fraser as Franz, the son of the German developer bent on destroying Sunset Strip. Fraser is such a joy to watch, embracing her character with tongue firmly planted in cheek and an energy that is unstoppable.
In the shadows of Orlando there is an elephant in the room. In the second half, Dennis and Lonny profess their love for each other with REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling”, but are never given the opportunity to consummate their new found relationship. In a show filled to overflowing with heterosexuality, it is a shame that a same-sex kiss never quite materializes, and is simply played for laughs. If Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin can do it in the movie version of Rock of Ages, why not on an Arts Club stage?
Sean Bayntun leads a kick-ass band on stage, who not only shred the music but become additional players in the madness on stage.
Rock of Ages is loud, is often obnoxious and raunchy, but it is the show’s self-awareness, coupled with some nice vocal performances from this cast, that remain its greatest gifts.
Rock of Ages with book and lyrics by Chris D’Arienzo. Arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp. Directed by Peter Jorgensen. An Arts Club Theatre Company production on stage at the Granville Island Stage (1585 Johnston St, Vancouver) until July 30. Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.
(Editor’s note (23 June): this review was edited to correct the name of one of the cast members).