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 storyline 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 into 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 lifeblood 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 is 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 performance at Mesa Arts Center in Mesa until June 3

Pictures Courtesy of Gayla Smith Photography

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