Big Fish – Theatre Review: Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

Depending on your outlook and the way you see the world, the Broadway musical Big Fish with Andrew Lippa’s pleasantly hummable score, now playing at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until June 30, can be about several things. On the surface, it’s about an Alabama farm boy who wanted to see the world, if, by the definition of the word ‘world’ you mean neighboring, southern states. It could also be a fairy tale about a man who tells life-affirming fairy tales. Or, more realistically, it could be about a traveling salesman, neglectful as a husband and a father who made stuff up when he finally returned home. “You weren’t there,” complains son to dad. “You were never there.”

That last summary may sound a lot less savory for a bright, colorful, and hugely inventive comedy musical, but in truth, Edward Bloom (Chad Campbell) was an awful parent, one who was aware of his negligence. When he finally returned home between bouts of traveling sales he would tell stories of his adventures, ones full of magical, colorful characters where he, Edward Bloom, was the center of the tale. That may be fine for a wild-eyed child who misses his father and thrilled upon dad’s eventual return, but as an adult, Will Bloom (Nicholas Gunnell) is no longer buying it.

During the opening sequence, young Will is about to marry. It’s the pre-wedding ceremony, the night before the actual service, but, as seen from dad’s humorous sense of skewed logic, he doesn’t get the idea of a rehearsal dinner. “People been eating dinners all their lives,” he announces. “Why the practice?

While skipping rocks on a nearby river, something the two used to do when Will was a boy, the now grown young man has one request of his father. During the wedding, Edward is not to make a speech or tell any of his fanciful stories. “No stories, no jokes, no anecdotes,” his son insists. Dad agrees, but once at the celebration, he can’t help himself. Much to the annoyance of Will (and to us because you know it’s exactly what he’s not supposed to do), Edward takes the microphone, makes a speech, one that he even acknowledges he’s breaking a promise, and reveals a secret that was never his to reveal.

Author Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel – full title: Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions – is a great read, one where the imagery of a fruitful imagination leaps like one of those Alabama flying fish off the page. Tim Burton’s 2003 film version, where Edward’s exaggerated stories were fully enacted, spelled things out and did all the imaginary work for us. The live musical falls somewhere in-between. The stories, the fanciful events, and their characters come alive, but by default because of being a live-stage production, the imagination and a sense of having to automatically suspend a disbelief makes the musical the best forum for author Wallace’s tale.

Plus, with this local valley presentation, that imaginative approach in Hale Centre Theatre’s production is forced to take one creative step further. Adapting a show, any show, for theatre-in-the-round creates a set of challenges not ordinarily faced when presenting a production on a more traditional proscenium arch staging. Of course, a major benefit is not having to work on painted flats while creating and moving scenery, but the challenge is how to successfully transport an audience into the world it’s presenting when clearly what you’re watching is artificial, one that you can practically reach out and touch if seated in the front row.

As repeatedly proven, particularly with its annual A Christmas Carol production, Hale has successfully cornered the market on elevating audience’s minds out of the round and into the centre of the story. In The Drowsy Chaperone, while seated surrounding the action, Hale audiences were placed right in the middle of the lead character’s mind, as if we were walking among those imaginary characters with him and sharing his fantasy, an effect that simply can’t be achieved on a traditional stage. With Big Fish performed in the round, director and choreographer Cambrian James achieves the same effect; the audience becomes an all-observing, silent character in the show. When players enact their moments and sing their songs in the aisles around us as well as before us, those flights of fanciful events where giants, werewolves, and mermaids emerge from the shadows of Edward’s mind all seem to walk not just before us, but among and around us.

Of course, it helps when the ensemble is as well cast with voices as good as they are here – Edward may be a braggart, but Chad Campbell makes him thoroughly likable throughout – plus everything from Mary Atkinson’s costumes to Tim Dietlein’s atmospheric lighting design all add to a first-class, musical production. But it’s James’s direction and inventive staging that makes the show come alive. During the scene in the park where father and son throw ball, the surrounding area is constantly on the move as roller skaters, joggers, moms with baby buggies pass by, all while a young girl sits by the side, writing observances, or maybe poems in a note pad. It’s as if we’re all there, seated on a park bench, observing life in a public park on a typical summer’s day, eavesdropping on a conversation between Edward and son. That same sense of creative magic that puts us right in the middle of Edward’s mind occurs later when cowboys and saloon gals climb out of the western movie showing on TV and suddenly fill the bedroom.

If the message of Big Fish is that if you can reinvent yourself by being anyone you want to be, or you can have anything you truly desire just by revising stories of your past and creating new, imaginative ones – the show begins and ends with the song Be A Hero which basically teaches just that – then the meaning behind the musical fails, but if you take to heart the moment when Karl the Giant (Kasey Ray) tells Edward that real knowledge is to know the length of your ignorance, then a valuable lesson is learned.

On Broadway, the Susan Stroman production closed after only three months. Audiences dropped sooner than expected and backers cut their losses. But Big Fish has found its audience in regional productions around the country, which, with a score as tuneful as this and writer John August’s script as funny as it is, makes this Hale Centre Theatre musical production more entertaining than the novel (personal choice) and far more satisfying than the Tim Burton film.

Big Fish continues at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until June 30

Pictures Courtesy of Nick Woodward-Shaw

Posted in Theatre

Gunmetal Blues – Theatre Review: A/C Theatre Company, Hardes Theatre @ Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

The first time the late night band of the Red Eye Lounge played its Gunmetal Blues was in May, 1991. It was at Phoenix Theatre in Phoenix under the direction of Michael Barnard, though at the time it was called Phoenix Little Theatre. That was 27 years ago.

Circling back to where it began, Gunmetal Blues, the gumshoe, small-scale musical disguised as a late night lounge act, currently plays at Hardes Theater @ Phoenix Theatre until June 3, this time directed with a keen eye for the genre by Tim Shawver. It’s A/C Theatre Company’s concluding production of the season, a thoroughly entertaining evening of stylized musical theatre, a murder mystery presented with shadows, silhouettes, and shards of dusty lights beaming down through half open shutters, the kind of story possessing that delicious Chandleresque dialog where a narrator tells you that the truth “… is something you couldn’t see ‘till you finally saw too much.

With a cast of two males, one female, and a four-piece band that actually sounds better and more accomplished than most small nightclub bands you might find playing in an airport hotel lounge, Gunmetal Blues takes us down those back alleys of an unnamed city, one full of smoky bars and mysteries that lie sleeping until prodded and eventually exposed. As private detective Sam Galahad (David Dickinson) tells us, it all begins with an important man named Adrian Wasp committing suicide.

At least, that’s what the newspaper headline says in huge letters, but maybe there’s something more foul afoot. Maybe it was murder, and if it was murder, then who committed the crime, and why? Was it a blonde called Carol Indigo, or maybe another blonde called Laura Vesper? Or maybe it was Princess, the all-observing bag lady who might know more than she’s willing to tell. Then again, it could have been Jenny, but Jenny has vanished and needs to be found. As Sam observes once shown a picture of the woman he needs to locate, “She had a mouth that would have Shakespeare thumbing through a thesaurus.”

Steve Hilderbrand plays the Red Eye Lounge all observing piano player, a one-man, jazz inclined Greek Chorus called Buddy Toupee who not only comments on the action while filling in the blanks of what the detective might be thinking, but also narrates the plot. A talented piano player and singer in his own right, at the switch of a hat and a comical change of accent, Hilderbrand morphs from the lounge act into a series of engaging characters Sam will meet along the way while investigating the mystery of Jenny’s whereabouts, including an Irish cop (of course he’s Irish) and a threatening thug.

With a trenchcoat and a slightly cocked hat shading his eyes, Dickinson’s whiskey-soaked private-eye, Sam Galahad is really Sam Spade with accompanying songs. And in a piece like Gunmetal Blues, that’s exactly as he should be. Plus, in the true tradition of someone Dashiell Hammett might write about, even though the character is unflinching and has an unsentimental style of detachment while looking for clues, he remains funny. While suffering from a hangover with his head buried in his hands, a saxophone solo from the band causes Sam to flinch and glance across the set to the musician with a disapproving glare. And when describing the looks of one of the several blondes he meets throughout the case, he states, “Forget about ships. This face could launch a thousand rockets.” By playing him straight, Dickinson makes his detective a character that doesn’t know how funny he is.

And as all the blondes of varying hair lengths, Kim Richard makes the right kind of tantalizing impression that works so well. She’s the seductive dame that Sam met ten years earlier, the one he can’t forget, and with good reason. She’s also Carol, and she’s Laura. And as the bag lady, Princess, she has perhaps the best, and more surprisingly, the most moving song of the score, I’m The One That Got Away, made even better by the strength of Richard’s clear vocal delivery.

Writer Scott Wentworth’s humorous dialog is also complimented by Marion Adler’s equally amusing lyrics (backed by Craig Bohmler’s appropriately atmospheric jazzy score) where Adler makes ‘man enough’ somehow rhyme with classical composer Rachmaninoff, and Sam’s detective is described as being “the hat in the rear-view mirror.” Particularly funny is Buddy’s musical hawking of his live night club recordings, the one not available in stores, where audiences can call in and make a purchase; Visa and Mastercard accepted. The joke is taken one step further when Sam makes a call, is put on hold, and hears the same recorded pitch moments later while hanging on line.

In truth, there’s a tendency to get lost in the plot, particularly in the second half where the intentionally convoluted circumstances of Sam’s investigations and the various characters he meets begin to pile, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. What works so well is the engaging journey, along with the production’s style, its terrific humor, the performances of the three players, and the overall design of a world full of double-dealers and hard-nosed detectives. “Trouble is my middle name,” states Sam. “It used to be Tall, Dark, and Handsome,” he adds, “But I changed it.” Gunmetal Blues is seriously stylish, musical fun.

A/C Theatre Company’s production of Gunmetal Blues continues at Hardes Theatre @ Phoenix Theatre until June 3

Pictures Courtesy of Durant Photography

Posted in Theatre

First Reformed – Film Review

In the new drama First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, Ethan Hawke is extremely good as Ernst Toller, a small-town priest who was once a military chaplain.

Toller carries a major sense of guilt. Following a family pattern, he encouraged his son to join the military. His son was sent to Iraq where he was killed within six months. Now, with failing health and alone, Toller is a priest to a Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York that is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. His congregation is small and dwindling, overshadowed by the much larger, nearby Abundant Life Church run by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, better known as comedian Cedric The Entertainer, and also good), where its sound equipment is state of the art and its congregation, 5,000 plus.

Then there’s Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her disturbed husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Mary wants Reverend Toller to speak with Michael. Listen to him, counsel him. Mary and Michael are expecting, but Michael’s fear, his all-encompassing paranoia, is that, environmentally, the world is no longer a place to raise a child. Pollution, waste, rivers of floating trash, all add to Michael’s sense of hopelessness for the future. Toller listens, and is even sympathetic, but cannot save him. In a moment of shocking surprise, Michael takes his life. Though it’s not immediately evident, this sacrificial act will eventually inspire Toller’s own preparation for an act of violence, one that doesn’t fully convince, yet comes not altogether unexpected considering the style of the project, and who wrote and directed the film.

As with Schrader’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Ethan Hawke’s Toller narrates throughout. With Bickle, it was a self-reflective, internal conversation where the character explored his thoughts and feelings, commented on the events of the day, and found justification for a horrendously violent act. In First Reformed, Toller writes in a diary where his self-reflection is a twelve-month experiment in committing his thoughts to paper rather than random commentary, but the end result of a voice-over narration sounds the same.

When writing about oneself, you should show no mercy,” Toller writes, adding that from the point of view of a priest, “Writing in the diary is a form of prayer.” But the more he writes, the more he questions himself, at one point asking about his twelve month writing commitment. “Can I keep up an exercise that long?” he writes, eventually concluding that, “This journal brings me no peace. Self pity, nothing more.”

Alexander Dynan’s cinematography is shot with a confining screen ratio of 1:37, which is practically a square, the kind of shape that would fit snugly into all four corners of an early TV screen, but no longer stretches out to a current, widescreen monitor. It’s not easy to say why. You can look for reasons and come up with suggestions indicating the narrowing of Toller’s restrictive world, or maybe his confining point-of-view, or that life around him is closing in. The reason behind the shape is never clear. Looking for one reminds of the exercise the late film critic Roger Ebert used to do with an audience when discussing a particular movie: pause the film, discuss motives, and even if there was never one there, find it. But whatever the reason, the end result looks eye-catching as Schrader directs the camera to remain theatrically static in rooms, churches, and offices, while characters walk in and out of the frame.

While exploring themes of mental illness, the effects of climate change, the dangers of denial, the corruption of finance, even martyrdom, there remains a sense of Schrader nuttiness, as seen in a floating fantasy sequence where Toller and Seyfriend’s Mary glide over changing images of the world, beginning with the beauty of the cosmos above, the planets oceans and its crashing waves below, then the sight of burnt vehicle tires, piles of trash, floating plastic garbage, and a burning planet.

Plus, First Reformed ends with a climax reminiscent of how The Sopranos closed – it doesn’t so much conclude as simply stops with an abrupt cut to a black screen. It’s one of those, “Now, wait a minute…” moments. It may work for some, particularly for those who love to break off into discussion groups and, like those Ebert audience participation evenings, find a reason for the edit, even if it’s not the one Schrader intended, but it also ensures that the film, as moving and as exceptionally well-performed as it is, will not be venturing far from its art-house audience.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 108 Minutes    Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)

 

Posted in Film

Little Shop of Horrors – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

When Richard O’Brien sought inspiration for his 1974 comedy rock musical, The Rocky Horror Show, he turned to the horror B movies and low-budget science fiction thrillers of the 50s and 60s. With intentions of snagging a similar audience, when playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman looked back, he needed only the one low-budget B picture to inspire things: the 1960 black comedy, Little Shop of Horrors, a Roger Corman farce about a man-eating plant in a flower shop on Skid Row.

The show started small, premiering off-off-Broadway in 1982, then moving off-Broadway for a five-year run. It wouldn’t open officially on Broadway until 2003, but between its beginnings in ‘82 and its eventual Great White Way premiere 22 years later, Little Shop of Horrors had already enjoyed a life and a solid reputation that included a successful run in London, a popular 1986 movie musical, and because if its small cast and simple setup, countless dinner theatre, community theatre, and even high-school productions.

For its remaining production in the 2017-2018 season, Phoenix Theatre turned to the Howard Ashman/Alan Menken horror comedy rock musical and has done what it does best – produced a hugely entertaining, crowd-pleasing, high-production value show that begins on a high note with its prologue sung by the three street urchins, Crystal (Britney Mack), Ronette (Alyssa Chiarello), and Chiffon (Anne-Lise Koyabe) and remains there, right up until the end when the whole company warn us in the finale not to feed the plants.

Closely following the plot of the drive-in Corman film but with some tweaks, Little Shop of Horrors tells of a time when the whole human race “suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence.” Young Seymour Krelborn (a suitably nerdy Brian Golub in glasses and a ball cap) has discovered a small, mysterious plant that suddenly appeared in the local wholesale flower district after an eclipse of the sun. He takes it back to his work place, Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists, where he and the girl of secret dreams, Audrey (Kate E. Cook) nurture it in the hope of attracting new customers to the shop, and perhaps even a raise from the store owner, Mr. Mushnik (Scott Davidson).

But there’s a problem. After a slight accident involving a cut finger, Seymour soon discovers that the plant needs blood to survive – human blood. And in a Faustian twist where Seymour risks everything to ensure success, including winning the heart of Audrey, the young orphan boy of Mushnik’s Florists feeds his ever growing plant more blood, then more, until it’s too late and the all-talking, all-singing plant, its limbs spreading like kudzu all over the place, develops ambitions of its own. “Looks like you’re not happy unless I open a vein,” states Seymour.

The music comes from the 60s doo-wap period, backed by the trio of urchins based on the all-girl groups of the time, like the Crystals, The Ronettes, and The Chiffons, with a smattering of Motown to boot. The Ashman/Menken score was always good, but hearing it again after a lengthy absence, you’re reminded just how much fun the whole thing always was, and remains.

Musical highlights include the Downtown song, Skid Row where the ensemble sing of its life in the downtrodden area of New York, a well-staged, humorously written number that introduces everyone you’re about to encounter and the area in which they live and work; Somewhere That’s Green, a wistful, memorable balled, wonderfully sung by Cook who does an admirable job of puncturing the belief that only Ellen Greene could ever do Audrey justice; Dentist!, the wildly absurd ode to the teeth-pulling career of a sadist, performed with all the non-stop, Loony Tunes energy of a whirling dervish by the leader of the plaque, Toby Yatso; and Feed Me, where Antonio Leroy King adds his impressive and comically expressive pipes to the voice of the plant. Special mention to unseen cast member Titus Kautz, excellent as the operator to the gleefully ravenous Skid Row plant that looks like a cross between a Venus Fly-Trap, a Triffid, and when it opens its mouth for feeding, Bruce the Shark from Jaws.

Despite the black level of humor that includes the feeding of bodies to the plant as it continues to grow and take over the shop, there’s a feeling of comical goodwill that constantly emerges from this top-notch cast under the experienced direction and musical staging of Robert Kolby Harper. As a director of musicals, Harper’s background in song and dance manifests in his theatrical staging, as if his natural inner rhythm can’t help but express itself through his style of direction. Like a well choreographed production, the whole show flows from scene to scene, from song to song, without missing a step, or a beat.

Little Shop of Horrors continues at Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix until June 10

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

Posted in Theatre

The Diary of Anne Frank – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Center Theater, Phoenix

She’s often thought of as the little Dutch girl. As a result of her diary, she may even be considered the world’s most famous Dutch diarist. But Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1929. Because of the rise of the Nazis during the thirties, the persecution of the German Jews, and the timing of a business opportunity in Amsterdam, Anne’s father, Otto Frank, moved the family across the border and settled in The Netherlands, more commonly referred to as Holland. Though she grew up living and learning the Dutch culture and speaking its language, Anne Frank remained a German national until 1941 when, after the Nazis had gained full control, she and her family became stateless.

Another interesting thing about Anne Frank is her diary, which wasn’t a diary at all but an autograph book. As seen in a store window, attracted by the look of its red and white checked cloth for a cover and a lock at the front to keep things secret from others, Anne’s father bought the empty pages of the autograph book for his daughter on her thirteenth birthday, June 12, 1942. It would be just a matter of weeks, July 6 of the same year, when Otto Frank would be forced to move his family into hiding. In her diary, Anne would call it Het Achterhuis, which literally means The House Behind, but became known as The Secret Annex, the additional part at the back of the tall, three-story building that could only be entered by an entry hidden by a bookcase. And it’s there where they stayed, hidden away until 1944 when their presence was discovered. Only Otto Frank would survive.

The thing about The Diary of Anne Frank is that we all know the outcome, particularly in the US where the Broadway play won the Pulitzer in 1955, followed by Shelley Winters’ Academy Award winning performance in the 1959 film of the same name. The book even became part of the American school curriculum for study. And it’s that knowledge of what is going to happen and how soon it will occur that hangs like an invisible dark cloud over everything and everyone from the moment the play begins.

In the new Arizona Theatre Company production, now in performance at Herberger Theater Center until June 3, that dark cloud becomes a literal part of Bill Clarke’s scenic design. Backed by Dan Roach’s sound – a loud, metallic crank, screeching and turning into place – the backdrop to the Frank’s attic hiding place reduces in size, scene by scene, slowly blocking the light of the outside world as if everything is closing in on them, eventually turning their existence into one of total darkness.

The play was first produced in 1955, written by husband and wife screenwriting team, Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett. As with the original publication of the book, where at the request of Otto Frank, certain elements of Anne’s character, her secret desires, her negative feelings towards her mother, and a descriptive exploration of her sexual awakenings, were either downplayed or removed, the play did the same. But a revision in 1995 by playwright Wendy Kesselman restored much of Anne’s darker approach, including the overtly Jewish writings of Anne’s diary. It won’t spoil things if none of this was known before entering the theatre, but once you’re aware of the background, the appreciation of what you’re seeing in this well-cast, exemplary ATC production is enhanced further.

The wooden beamed, multi-layered set indicating the various areas of the annex appears more spacious than the real tall and skinny achterhuis presumably was. Considering how cramped conditions were for both the family and others clumped together for two years, there’s little wonder that disagreements and full-blown arguments would occur.

Part of the problem was Anne herself, who at such a young age and with such cooped-up, teenage energy, often came across as obnoxious and bratty. She is seen inconveniencing others by writing her diary on the floor while those around her have to step over in order to get anywhere. “I seem to irritate everyone around here,” Anne (Anna Lentz) states to the dentist, Mr. Dussel (Michael Santo), also in hiding. While in reality Lentz is considerably older than the thirteen to fifteen year-old Anne, with giggles, laughs, a general excitability, and an overall ebullient manner befitting of a girl in her early to mid-teens, her Anne Frank convinces. She’s likable and – no doubt because of knowing what fate will soon befall her – your sympathies can’t help but fall on her side, regardless of her youthful annoyances.

In addition to the sound design of soldiers marching and singing outside, you’ll also hear water and seagulls, which may seem odd considering that the house where the family hid was inland. But Amsterdam is a city made of about 90 small, floating islands held together by more than a thousand bridges. For years, massive polders have held those islands aloft, which is why you can view all aspects of the city from the point of a view of a canal. The family hiding place was in a house on Prinsengracht, meaning Prince’s Canal, its front door just a few yards from the water’s edge. If you go, you’ll notice there are seagulls everywhere.

Wisely, despite the location and the mix of European accents involved, the actors retain their American voice. The BBC radio broadcasts may have that London delivery, and Otto (Steve Hendrickson) and his wife Edith Frank (Naama Potok) would presumably have retained their German accents when speaking Dutch, but when the players are together in that attic, there are no differences in sound. Interestingly, while the players pronounce Anne’s name as it would in The Netherlands, her sister Margot (Devon Prokopek, who with glasses and wig is a dead-ringer for the real Margot) has her name fully pronounced. It may seem like a nit-pick, but with a company whose reputation is on the details (as with the sound of those seagulls) and its high-production values, it’s curious that the ‘T,’ silent in Dutch, would here be pronounced. It actually sounds strangely clumsy. And, as a historic point of interest not mentioned in the play, like Anne, Margot wrote her own diary in the annex, but it was never found.

Director David Ira Goldstein creates a sense of urgency throughout that, if memory serves, was largely absent on previous Anne Frank productions. Part of this has to do with Kesselman’s update which appears to focus in on elements that stirs emotions previously untapped by the play’s original adaptation, particularly at the conclusion.

There’s a new, closing scene where Anne’s father (Steve Hendrickson) returns to the empty annex, and its inclusion makes all the difference. It acts both as an epilogue, allowing us to know in detail the fates of all, while delivering the full emotional impact of a father’s feelings, one who has lost everything. You knew from the play’s outset what you were in for, and no doubt you were aware how watching a play about eight people in hiding would affect you. But when Hendrickson clutches Anne’s book, you can’t possibly be prepared for that lingering feeling that refuses to go after having witnessed a man break down in the way Hendrickson does, a victim of the world’s loss of humanity. It’s a harrowing conclusion.

ATC’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank continues at Herberger Center Theater until June 3

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Fuller

Posted in Theatre

Rock of Ages – Theatre Review: Mesa Encore Theatre, Mesa Arts Center, Mesa

Writer Chris D’Arienzo has written of his unapologetic love for musicals. But it was in his youth when he quickly realized a harsh reality: Chicks don’t trust their heart or virginity to a guy who says he’s straight but owns the original cast recording of Annie. So when the opportunity to write the book revolving around the music of 80’s big hair bands like Poison, Whitesnake and Warrant came along, the kind of rock that promises to melt your face, D’Arienzo jumped at it.

Of course, comparing Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love or Stairway to Heaven to the rock of Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It or Starship’s We Built This City is like placing a gourmet meal next to a mile high diet of head-banging junk food. But for a comedy jukebox musical that is only too aware of its absurdities and its overall silliness, hearing REO Speedwagon’s Can’t Fight This Feeling as two men comically express their affections for each other in dance is exactly how the songs of their ilk and of the time should be used – as a comedy backdrop to the final days of vinyl and glam rock 80s music videos, where Just Like Paradise meant living the rock ‘n roll life on the acid wash epicenter, LA’s Sunset Strip. If a fella had a dream, a fifth of jack and a decent amount of hair, there was nowhere else to be. Plus, he was having Nothin’ But A Good Time while being there.

As narrated by Lonny (a mullet wigged Max H. Reed in chunky jeans and banana-colored suspenders) Rock of Ages takes place in 1987. There are several story lines happening, all of them intentionally familiar in one way or another, inspired by the combination of early Hollywood musicals and what happened after watching hundreds of heavy-metal videos.

First, there’s Sherrie Christian (Heidi-Liz Johnson) who lives three thousand, three hundred and thirty-seven Waffle Houses away in a little town called Paola, Kanas. She’s just arrived in town hoping to make it in the movies but happy to take a job as a waitress until the auditions start. True love with a busboy who is also an aspiring rocker, Drew (Jacob Selvidge) might also be on the cards.

Then there’s the plot revolving around lead singer for the rock band Arsenal, Stacee Jaxx (Bryan Stewart). He’s in town for his final performance with his band on a double-bill with Concrete Ballz, except that Ballz are forced to drop, finally giving Drew his break as a support act in The Bourbon Room. Stacee’s back to perform in the bar because of a favor owed involving the cover-up of an occurrence in a hotel room with some Cool Whip and a baby llama. Don’t ask.

There’s also the Hollywood bar/club plot. Sunset Strip’s The Bourbon Room itself, run by aging rocker Dennis (Rick Davis, who makes a convincing aging rocker) is in trouble. German land developers, Hertz (a comically accented Todd Corbeil) and his son, Franz (Jonathan Perry Brown) are ready to buy the land, rid the area of its rock ‘n roll lifestyle, bring in the bulldozers, and knock things down, ready to redevelop the area. It’s an old Hollywood plot, one that was used yet again as the story behind the 2010 movie with Christine Aguilera and Cher, Burlesque. If you saw the 2012 film version of Rock of Ages and wondered why its central story line was changed from a land development plot to a political cleanup for some oncoming local elections, there’s your answer; Burlesque made the big screen first. But the setup, or the differences between the film and the show, are of no importance. It’s the humor, the featherbrained characters, plus the songs, and how they’re used that matters.

There’s an overall rough-around-the-edges look to the Virginia Olivieri directed show that occasionally makes things appear as though it all might soon fall apart. Some of the early dialog is lost when spoken over the band, plus there’s a looseness in performance that often occurs when transitioning from one scene to another; an actor might hesitate before talking when the dialog in the following scene should flow right in to the next sequence without missing a beat. Plus, it’s not entirely convincing to see either the Greek chorus of slutty, heavy-metal chicks dressed appropriately in their come-on tight, revealing, tartan skirts (yay!) stockings and suspenders while strutting around not in heels but in sneakers. Same with Sherrie’s absent trademark thigh-high boots and stilettos; gone for a pair of flat Adidas. I’m sure they’re more comfortable for performers when bouncing around on stage, but their absence is as though an important part of the rock vixen uniform and overall shape is missing. When 80’s music video sex symbol Tawney Kitaen slithered over David Coverdale’s Whitesnake, do you think she wore runners?

Seeing Rock of Ages again after a lengthy absence resulted with some of the same thoughts regarding the songs. It’s amazing what the passing of time can do. Music that once had classic rock ‘n rollers switching the dial to another station as soon as something by Poison or Ratt began playing suddenly acquires a fun sense of affection when heard in a different setting. It’s not exactly music snobbery, but when the guys in the video had bigger hair than the heavy-metal vixens that backed them, and some of the songs were actually ear-busting bloated versions of 70s pop tunes by Slade, such as Cum On Feel The Noize covered in the 80s by Quiet Riot, then no one was taking things seriously. And certainly, neither does Rock of Ages, which exactly as it should be.

The musical sequences are the life blood of the production. Whatever reservations you may have from time to time are forgotten when a number kicks in. Backed by an excellent five-piece band who are on-stage the whole time, it’s the songs and their staging that make this Mesa production of Rock of Ages the fun that it is. Not all of the singing sounds rock ‘n roll. Often when voices trained for the stage start rocking to heavy metal, there’s a noticeable strain that emerges in the vocals. A problem with pop/rock as opposed to most other forms of music is its broad accessibility. We all think we can sing, until we try. And that’s the same with experienced performers who can interpret Rodgers and Hammerstein to perfection but crack their chords when trying Dee Snyder. But when the cast are together as a fists-in-the-air ensemble, as with Nothin’ But a Good Time, Don’t Stop Believin’, and particularly Here I Go Again, the production is at its best.

It’s fitting that the final show of Mesa Encore Theatre’s current season should be Rock of Ages; it’s less like a closing production and more like a good time celebration, a theatrical party to let that long hair down, tease it up again, and bang it against the wall before the oncoming summer break when the company starts readying itself for its next 2018-2019 season. Look past some of the budget restricting shortcomings and you’ll enjoy yourself. Like director Olivieri, who openly admits in the program her preference for non-musical theatre, bravely dig in and get knee deep in the hoopla. When the cast gather for Don’t Stop Believin,’ you can’t resist. Heads will bang.

Rock of Ages continues in performace at Mesa Arts Center in Mesa until June 3

Pictures Courtesy of Gayla Smith Photography

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