Thursday, April 14, 2011

'Age' Doesn't Matter, When You Want to 'Rock'

If you’ve ever been on a car trip with me, or if you’ve ever been with me at a bar when I’ve dropped five bucks into the jukebox; then you’ve got a very good idea of the kind of music I love. If you’re not lucky enough to know already, let me inform you: Anything from the 1980s and 1990s. Musically, my biggest regret in life was not being of age – or born yet, for that matter – to attend Woodstock. My second regret, would be the fact that I was too young to actually enjoy and appreciate the big hair metal bands and the pop-filled sappy love ballads of the eighties. Perhaps its an attempt to make up for that missed opportunity, that I constantly rock out to those iconic tracks, from some bands that I have really come to love.

In May of last year, I was in Boston hanging out with two of my NYC Theatre-savvy friends McNear and Samantha, when they told me about a show that they had just seen on Broadway, and that they knew was perfect for me. This was the first day that I had ever heard about “Rock of Ages”. When I finally got home, I made sure to get my hands on the album, and just from looking at the track list, I knew I was going to love what I was about to listen to. Well, let me honest, I didn’t love it. Not the first time, and not the second or third. I loved the songs, but the problem was that I couldn’t sing along with them because of the fact that they cut pieces from songs together and they changed keys and lyrics to fit together. Now, I enjoyed the creativeness of what they were trying to do, but it just made it hard to enjoy – because it was different from what I had been used to for so many years. Over time, I learned to like the album, but I never loved it.

Enter the Broadway Across America production of “Rock of Ages” at Clowes Memorial Hall. Seeing this production live changes everything, and I mean everything. So much is visually lost on the album, that I felt like I was seeing a completely different show. Of course, I had done my homework when listening to the album, and I knew the basic storyline that I was supposed to be trying to follow, while listening to all of these great songs spliced together into an attempt at a storyline.

I’m going to be honest, the plot of “Rock of Ages” is nothing to be praised. It’s simple. A small town girl, comes to Los Angeles in the 80s, meets boy, multiple misunderstandings keep boy and girl from getting together, boy and girl go separate ways, boy and girl finally get together. Let’s be honest, you already knew it was coming. The plot isn’t why you’re going to see this show; you’re coming for the music and performances, and the hope to be swept into a world of fond memories. The best thing about “Rock of Ages” is the fact that it doesn’t take itself seriously at all, it’ just a good, fun, rocking time to be had be the entire audience, as well as the cast who do a marvelous job of interacting with the audience during moments of well-played improvisation. You can’t expect too much seriousness from a show filled with ‘poop jokes’ and ‘no deep or complex characters’. I also shouldn’t forget to mention the STD jokes, numerous sex gags, wine coolers, jazz hands, and the perfect example of “The Friend Zone Trap” – all of these things are used in some genius comic manner. To further illustrate my point, as you walk into the show, they randomly hand out LED faux-lighters to guests, and throughout the show I saw a sea of LED, true flames, and cell phones being held up and waved to and fro.

The two most notable things about the show are these. First, all of the music is played live, on stage, by a four-piece band. No orchestra pit, no recordings. Instead, they put four very talented musicians in the background of the production, where you can watch them the entire time. It was great to see them get their moment in the spotlight, after the entire cast took their bow, it was a nice jam session for them on stage. The second thing about this show, is the fact that for the majority of the time, the background singers and dancers are girls walking around in bras and panties, for the most part. These backups are either cocktailers in The Bourbon Room, or strippers at The Venus Club. I can’t lie, when I say that their table/bar/pole/lap dancing provided some of the best eye-candy of any stage production I’ve ever witnessed. I felt like I was at a PG-Rated Kid Rock concert.

I don’t know if there was a better seat in the house, but I really enjoyed sitting where I did, as I was blessed to be in the row behind a group of mid-to-late fifty-something women. I knew I was going to enjoy my seats, when during the opening number Poison’s “Nothin’ But a Good Time” began playing and all six of these women started bouncing up and down in their seats. Moments later, when some of the dancers got up on the bar top and began dancing, I could tell from the looks that they all gave each other – that these women had been there before, in their youth. The appeared age-appropriate to have partied hard with their perms and neon clothing at a number of questionable dive bars three decades ago. Needless to say, their chair dancing and hooting/hollering didn’t stop with the opening number. This particular group of women were also in the large group of women who I felt were serenading me during Extreme’s “More Than Words” (which is wonderfully spliced together with Warrant’s “Heaven” and Mr. Big’s “To Be With You”).

Coming from the New Media/Digital Arts background that I once pursued, I’m always a fan of the integration of new media techniques into stage productions. “Rock of Ages” utilizes a collection of jumbo-LED screens above the stage to help convey various modes, tones, and settings for the production. I was originally captivated during the duet of STYX’s “Too Much Time on My Hands”, when a character on stage was on the telephone and interacting with the character on the video screen. In later scenes, like Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You”, the screen is used to show the streets of the city while Boy and Girl are driving, and once they reach their destination, it has a beautiful overlook of the City of Angels at nighttime. The lighting of the backdrop and the images on the video screens are a perfect piece of the show that does a wonderful job of setting the mood for each scene.

While it’s former “American Idol” star Constantine Maroulis who gets top-billing and plays the “boy” of the plot, I personally believe the entire show is held together by the Shakespearean style narration of Lonny, played in this production by very memorable Patrick Lewallen ( Truth be told, it’s Lonny’s constant breaking of the fourth wall to engage the audience, that keeps the plot moving from time to time. His ability to humorously pop in and out of scenes to provide comedic commentary are also one of the highlights of the show. You’re sure to laugh when he pops into a scene with the line, “Yes, you did”.

I haven’t watched any of “American Idol” since the second season, so I really have no familiarity with Constantine, aside from hear a lot about him. If Justin Bieber has all of the little teens going crazy, then after last night, I can only imagine that Constantine is the Bieber for forty-something women, because they were all going crazy for him from the minute he walked on stage, and every single time he played the audience, it was to massive “oohs” and “yelps” from the cougars in the audience. All I had ever seen was the media hype, and now I will be the first to admit that Constantine proved me wrong in my preconceived notions of him. I expected him to come out into the show and demand to be the center of attention. Within the first minute of the show, I realized that he was perfectly fit to play the quite, shy, loveable loser made popular in almost every John Hughes film. Constantine was cool, he did a great job evolving the character of Drew from an insecure struggling musician, to a corporate sell-out, back to a pizza delivery boy.

Seeing how I consider Steve Perry one of the greatest vocalists of my lifetime, I have always loved the inclusion of “Oh, Sherrie” in the production, and naming the lead female after this song was a treat. In this production, Elicia Mackenzie does a wonderful job with the transformation of a sweet and innocent little girl, into a reluctant stripper. Visually, Elicia rocks the stage when she gets the ever-clichéd opportunity to dance on the hood of a car. Vocally, Elicia is constantly great, however at the conclusion of Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night” she really lets go and sound phenomenal.

The most flamboyantly entertaining character in the entire production is Franz, who was played by Travis Walker in this tour. I don’t even know where to begin describing how enjoyable this character was. As funny as Lonny is, I have to say that Franz steals the show in every scene he is in. Franz is the centerpiece of the greatest moment in the entire production, during the singing of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” – which from the uproarious amount of laughter, the entire audience agrees with me. But, brace yourself, because less than ten minutes later you’re going to be enjoying some more over-the-top Franz. Without a doubt, Franz has the greatest dance moves throughout the entire show. Travis Walker has some serious skills in that department.

The show also includes a great pair of hippies, still hanging around in the eighties. Dennis Dupree is the owner of The Bourbon Room, and was played by Nick Cordero to a stoner’s perfection. Dennis and Lonnie have one of the best duets, when they sing REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” to each other – complete with photo montage on the video screen. Casey Tuma played the role of Regina, who is originally introduced as working for the corrupt mayor, only to end up as the leader of the protestors trying to prevent the demolition of The Bourbon Room. Her spunky attitude brings loads of comedy to the majority of her scenes.

I’m honestly curious how many hours of Bret Michaels footage was watched by Patrick Deiwick to create such a perfect rendition of him for the sex-crazed alcoholic douchebag antagonist of the production, Stacee Jaxx. Because from the minute the cowboy hat and tight pants strut onto the stage, it’s a perfect representation of everything I’ve ever seen of Bret Michaels. At this moment, not many of Stacee’s musical numbers are coming back to me, however a lot of his stage presence is. I remember the large number of gags he’s involved in, and his bathroom seduction of the starry-eyed Sherrie during Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” is very enjoyable, and well played between the two of them.

I remember a few years back, when certain people were making claims about “crowd noise” being pumped into the RCA Dome. Had those people been at Clowes Memorial Hall last night, they most likely would have made the same asinine claims during the show’s finale, because it got LOUD. As the first few notes of Journey’s most popular bar song began to play, it was enough to get the entire audience on their feet, clapping, and singing along to “Don’t Stop Believin’”. It really made the finale feel like you were actually at a rock concert, and not a musical production.

Have you been paying attention to all of the name dropping that I’ve been doing in this review?
Poison, Extreme, Warrant, Mr. Big, STYX, Foreigner, Steve Perry, Pat Benatar, REO Speedwagon, and Journey. Well, let me just drop a few more from the show: Night Ranger, Damn Yankees, Whitesnake, Starship, Twisted Sister, Bon Jovi, and Asia. Aside from this show, and my iPod, I’m not sure where anyone can hear all of this great music together.

If you are looking for an amazingly fun and entertaining time, then you have to check this musical out. It’s one of the best times I’ve ever had going to the theatre. If you're older, you'll have a great time remember high school and college and rocking out to these songs in their prime.  If you're my age, you'll have fond memories from growing up and catching the coattails of the rock era.  And if you're a young thing, then you'll get the chance to be exposed to some of the greatest music you'll ever hear, and hopefully it'll gateway you into listening to more of this music.
If you haven’t heard the album, then I suggest you do yourself a favor, and go into the show now knowing what to expect, and soak in the entire experience first. Having now seen the production, I can say that it will make listening to the album much more enjoyable, as I’m reminded of the sight gags and character nuances that I was previously unaware of.  The only thing missing from the show is The Outfield's "Your Love". Now, please excuse me, I'd like to get my face melted, again.

1 comment:

Greg said... brought back some fine memories with those groups. I remember them well, as I graduated in 1980. You have good taste and a keen ear for music to like these bands.

The show sounds like it would have been a good one to attend. I get a pretty funny visual with you sitting there and witnessing the ladies in there fifties rocking out.

Of course I'm no to far away.