A visit to the Durham Performing Arts Center for the touring production of Rock of Ages yields a number of odd sights. Audience members, mostly people in their 40s and 50s, are wearing suits and evening wear to a play that’s based, in part, on the fashion excesses of 1980s youth culture. They also sip cups of red wine in front of a set labeled “The Bourbon Room.”
And as they trudge along the red-carpeted floors, the sound system blasts the likes of Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” How did low-rent entertainment become the subject for a top-dollar production?
Understand, that’s not a dis of 1980s music, something I greatly enjoy and often use as a pick-me-up. But with the 30th anniversary of MTV occurring this year and the excellent new oral history I Want My MTV now in bookstores, it’s fascinating how the 1980s rock culture—those songs and videos that were often mocked even by the artists who created them—became such a massive mainstream force. Big hair, androgynous fashions and lyrics that barely qualified as single entendres represented a force of youthful enthusiasm and exuberance.
This actually offers some potential for a musical premise; the strength of most musicals comes from characters articulating in song what they can’t in mere words. But Rock of Ages suffers from letting the silliness just be silliness.
With a jukebox musical, the audience is likely to already know most of the songs, so there’s a moment of groaning when a character headed out on a date breaks into Foreigner’s “Waiting For a Girl Like You,” or the lead-in to a club’s demolition is, yes, Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”
Again, there’s some fun you could have with that, particularly as lyrics are recontextualized in different situations, but Chris D’Arienzo’s book is, frankly, not very good. The story concerns Sherrie (Shannon Mullen) and Drew (Dominique Scott), a couple of dreamers who fall for each other at the 1980s Sunset Strip hangout the Bourbon Room and find their plans deferred by fate, misunderstanding and the spoiled rock god Stacee Jaxx (Matt Nolan). The plot is so thin that narrator Lonny (Justin Colombo, who seems to be channeling Tenacious D-era Jack Black) has to explicate such major points as the fact that the first act coming to an end.
Much of Rock of Ages’ plot takes its cue from old-fashioned musical theater standbys, including the idea that uptight German accents are still funny, as is the sight of two men declaring their love for one another (the dialogue is filled with profanity roughly at the level of a middle-schooler’s understanding of bad language). One character, played by Katie Postotnik, is defined in part that her name is pronounced “Reh-JYE-na” (according to IMDb.com, Regina appears to have been mercifully eliminated from the upcoming film version).
The cast is game for this material—Mullen has some strong comic timing as Sherrie, and the numbers carried by her vocals are highlights, something that’s very strange to write about a mash-up of Extreme’s “More Than Words” and Mr. Big’s “To Be With You” (both of which were actually hits in the early 1990s, but never mind). Nolan also gets some good riffs out of his underwritten character of the whiny Jaxx, and a scene with Jaxx and Sherrie that can only be called the “passive-aggressive lapdance” is a comic highlight. The band, especially lead guitar Chris Cicchino, is also excellent, though those sitting near the front might want to bring earplugs for a few numbers. It gets loud.
Dorothy Parker once wrote, “Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.” The problem with Rock of Ages is that it’s merely wisecracking about the 1980s without the wit. The excesses of ’80s rock and the Sunset Strip were mocked even while they were going on with films such as This is Spinal Tap and the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (which, admittedly, had several faked bits). What those films and the more recent Anvil: The Story of Anvil had that Rock of Ages lacks is a certain horror at this excess.
There’s foul language and deferred dreams, but it’s all portrayed with such cartoonishness that even a sexual coupling in a bathroom stall still projects a certain innocence. Never mind coke, AIDS or the rampant abuse of groupies on the Sunset Strip: Wasn’t it just too much that everyone had big hair and shoulder pads?
The closest Rock of Ages comes to evoking just why this excess had a fundamental appeal comes with the closing rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which had the audience on its feet. True, that stadium standby has been used in everything from Glee to The Sopranos, but its combination of driving guitars and earnest lyrics tap into something sincere. That’s what makes a goofy pop song work, when the fundamental message taps into some longing or frustration or desire to forget one’s troubles. The songs of Rock of Ages tap into this, along with nostalgia for that era, and that’s likely what has made this a popular, long-running show. But it still doesn’t make it a good one.
Also, be careful. If you encounter a bad traffic that slows your trip to DPAC, it’s possible that you’ll have heard about half the soundtrack on the radio by the time you arrive.