I had a free show slot over the weekend, and I was considering getting a discount ticket to see Mamma Mia. Yeah, I know. But the Winter Garden is now the only Broadway theater that I've never been in, since I crossed the Broadway Theatre off my list by seeing Shrek on Saturday night. (Look for my review sometime soon). I thought it might be cool to make the weekend a bit of a milestone, but my cooler head prevailed, and I decided instead to get a ticket to see the new Off-Broadway tuner Rock of Ages.
On Sunday afternoon, I approached the New World Stages with a sense of dread and a set of earplugs. I'm reeeeeeally not the headbanger type. But the pre-show music quickly got me into the mood by featuring songs that I didn't even remember I knew, including those from Loverboy, Pat Benatar, Foreigner, and Journey. I had expected to see a bunch of headbangers in attendance, but instead found myself surrounded by outwardly respectable people of my own age or slightly greater, as well as the occasional gaggle of Jersey Hoodsies.
The plot of Rock of Ages involves a struggling rocker (Constantine Maroulis) and the actress wannabe he falls for (Kelli Barrett), both of whom work at the local rock club. There's also this evil real estate developer who wants to raze the club in an effort to gentrify and commoditize downtown Los Angeles. Yeah, it's one big cliche, but the show and everyone involved know this, and gently poke fun at both themselves and the paper-thin plot. Director Kristen Hanggi and librettist Chris D'Arienzo include numerous funny, campy touches, and treat the subject matter with the amount of gravity it deserves. Which is to say, none.
The score features popular hits from the 1980s. The Playbill for Rock of Ages doesn't list the actual songs from the show, allowing audience members to revel in the Mamma Mia surprise factor: "Oh, my God! I remember that song!" And the songs, often in the form of interesting contrapuntal arrangements, actually seem to fit the plot, for the most part. What we have here is a genuine "jukebox" musical, in that it draws from all the songs that would actually have been on a jukebox in the '80s, not just those of one band or artist.
In addition to having a keen sense of humor about itself, the show's other key asset is its engaging cast. This was my first time seeing Constantine Maroulis live, and I must admit I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable and appealing he was on stage. Maroulis eschewed vocal histrionics in favor of an amiable and quirky performance. Also central to the show's appeal are Mitchell Jarvis as Lonny, the frenetic and salacious narrator, and the delightful Lauren Molina as activist Regina McKay. Will Swenson normally plays shallow rocker Stacee Jaxx, but Swenson was out for this performance, which was really a shame, because stand-in Jeremy Woodard didn't have half of Swenson's stage presence or charisma. (I'm hoping that Swenson will reprise the role of Berger in the upcoming Broadway transfer of Hair, especially now that Jonathan Groff is unlikely to return as Claude.)
Although I genuinely enjoyed Rock of Ages, the show could have used a bit of trimming. As is, it's about 20 minutes longer than it really needs to be. But it's an infectious good time of a show, and in its own way, remarkably innocent and...wholesome? Don't go expecting keen sociological commentary or sharp satirical inisghts. To quote one song from the show, we're talking "Nothing But a Good Time."