May 29--Let's just get it out there: "Rock of Ages" is loud, crude and incredibly lewd. But this jukebox show celebrating the excesses of 1980s heavy metal music is so earnest in its bad taste that it's almost impossible not to fist-pump along with its guitar riffs and power ballads.
The show, which opened a one-week run Tuesday as part of the Broadway Across America series, is a collection of 28 songs from groups like Styx, Journey, White Snake and Bon Jovi, all strung together with a light story of young lovers and desperate times on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip.
While a few of those songs are cringe-worthy (like Starship's dreadful "We Built This City," which Blender magazine once named the worst single ever recorded), most instantly evoke the acid-washed age of big hair, short skirts and neon-tinged makeup. When the cast kicks into a cover of Poison's "Nothin' But A Good Time," it's pointless to resist.
Much of the reason "Rock of Ages" is so appealing is the clever way it pokes fun at the 1980s in both its dialogue and design. Writer Chris D'Arienzo laces the story with period slang, vulgar band names, and the sort of rocker-speak about girls, fast cars and high times that were common in the early days of MTV. The production's costuming goes even further, with sequins, free-flowing leather, and wigs that have been dressed with crimping irons.
While heavy metal concerts weren't known for onstage dancing, choreographer Kelly Devine has effectively re-created the movement and feel of'80s music videos, creating ensemble numbers with over-head clapping and suggestive hip-thrusts. There's even a clever homage to Michael Jackson and boy bands, which cut into metal's dominance over the airwaves before the genre was largely killed off by grunge in the 1990s.
But the show also plays with the conventions of musical theater, at one point mocking the idea of show-stoppers, jazz hands and Broadway divas. A few of those jokes were lost on some members of the subscriber-heavy opening night audience, who seemed to not know what they were getting into, and left at intermission.
But the second act is when "Rock of Ages" kicks into high gear, fueled by strong performances by Dominique Scott as a wannabe rocker, and Justin Colombo as a Sunset Strip nightclub worker who doubles as the show's narrator. Scott's voice spans multiple octaves, and he's got the sort of disciplined breathing that supports single notes held for more than 10 seconds. Colombo has disarming appeal, and successfully breaks the fourth wall between the actors and the audience, frequently talking directly to the crowd with jokes and ad-libs.
Adding to the energy is an onstage rock band, giving parts of the show the feel of an arena rock spectacle, complete with spinning hair and devil fingers. It's not the sort of thing Broadway audiences normally see on stage, but then this is supposed to be the'80s. We came here to rock.
-- Grant Butler
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