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Rock of Ages – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

Rock poster

When it comes to musical taste, it’s amazing what the passing of time can do.  Songs and a style of pop/rock that when played on the car stereo had you reaching for the dial faster than an Yngwie Malmsteen guitar lick can suddenly acquire a sense of nostalgia, even fond affection, when heard again several years later.

In the case of the head-banging, jukebox musical Rock of Ages, now playing at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria until June 19, songs that thirty years ago might have had any decent rock ‘n roll fan wondering where’s Led Zeppelin when you need them suddenly take on a different form.  After all, in the pantheon of unforgettable classic rock and roll, neither Starship’s We Built This City nor Twisted Sister’s I Wanna Rock hold honorable positions.  But, then again, they were never meant to.

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The Los Angeles Sunset Strip music scene of the mid-80’s was ablaze with the sound of backcombed hair bands like Def Leppard, Quiet Riot and Bon Jovi and it had nothing to do with taste.  It was everyone having Nothin’ But A Good Time, to quote Poison’s 1988 hit single, and that’s exactly what Rock of Ages is going for; not the classics – Stairway to Heaven; too accomplished, Layla; too good – but the good time, head-banging, bloated, studs with leather pop rock where the guys had bigger hair and wore more makeup than the aggressively slutty looking heavy-metal video chicks that backed them.

The glam, heavy metal days of the 80’s wanted nothing more for its fans than to Cum On Feel the Noize, which is why ABT’s production of Rock of Ages is so much giddy fun.  It’s full of glorious bad taste, big hair, loud guitar licks, songs you’d forgotten you ever knew, and it’s all very, very funny.  But more importantly, at ABT under Kurtis W. Overby’s lively direction and fun, hands-clenched-in-the-air choreography, plus Mark 4Man’s loud synth and heavy metal musical direction, it’s also done very well.

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Following the formula of other jukebox musicals where previously known songs not written for the Broadway stage are assembled as a musical score to pepper a thin story line, Rock of Ages has an admittedly, though intentionally, clichéd plot, and that’s all part of the fun.  It’s the same one used in Cher’s 2010 movie Burlesque where an out of town girl gets a job at a struggling L.A. nightclub/bar and becomes embroiled with a fight against developers who want to knock the bar down and make way for new buildings.  On reflection, maybe that’s why the tamer movie version of Rock of Ages changed its plot, but ABT’s stage version remains with the original.   While Burlesque actually took this old plot seriously, Rock of Ages knows that everything about it is silly and plays it that way.

What makes Rock of Ages so much, unadulterated, ‘R’ rated fun is writer Chris D’Arienzo’s book.  He hasn’t simply bridged popular 80’s songs with a plot that serves merely as a way of getting to the next big number, he makes almost every line spoken in one way or another funny.  There’s hardly a dull moment, and certainly never a serious one.  When good girl Sherrie (Laurie Elizabeth Gardner) first arrives at the Bourbon Room, where most of the action takes place, she announces with a smile, “Smells like rock… and urine.” 

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Casting is good and appropriate throughout, not just the leads but the whole supporting ensemble consisting of back-up singers and scantily-clad, heavy-metal video fantasy chicks all of whom double as walk-ons at some point or another.  But the two you’ll remember the most is Matthew Mello’s hilarious mullet-wearing narrator Lonny who breaks that fourth wall and continually shares his bad-boy thoughts with the audience, and the story’s central character, Sherrie Christian (Gardner) whose name exits just so that Night Ranger’s Sister Christian and Steve Perry’s Oh Sherrie can be used.

When passing a thought on music, Mello’s Lonny begins with, “I may be no Andrew Lloyd Sondheim, but…” plus just before the curtain falls on intermission, he points to two women down near the front of the audience and declares, “You and you. My dressing room in two minutes.”

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Laurie Elizabeth Gardner, who, according to the Playbill notes, has just finished playing the same role in New Hampshire, is an outstanding Sherrie.  With big hair, handsome good looks, a revealing micro-mini and perhaps the best legs on Sunset Strip, Gardner’s Sherrie may see herself as a wide-eyed innocent, fresh from the mid-west and ready to be a Hollywood actress, but deep down she has the heart of a slutty, rock chick willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice in order to have sex in the men’s bathroom with a rock star (a funny Joe Ogren as a wannabe Dee Snider, Stacy Jaxx).  Later, when making ends meet as a stripper, a movie-rep tells her he can see Sherrie as the next Molly Ringwald.  An amazed Sherrie replies, “You got that in a two-for-one lap dance?”

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Lottie Dixon’s costumes, Amanda Gran’s wig and makeup, and Geoffrey M. Eroe’s excellent set design of the cluttered Bourbon Room and its environs, lit by William C. Kirkham’s atmospheric nightclub lighting, all evoke the spirit of Broadway’s original designs.  ABT’s production of Rock of Ages delivers exactly what Poison promises, Nothin’ But A Good Time.  A second visit to see Sherrie and the gang would not be out place.

Pictures courtesy of Joe Samplin

 For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the official ABT website.

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