When you are at Rock of Ages, the question is out: are you ready to rock? Well, you’d better be: you are expected to.
From the moment you pass through the theater doors, you are immersed in the production’s concept. From the shirt and CD kiosk in the lobby to the planted “groupies” in the front rows, you are led to believe you are at a rock concert, and are expected to act accordingly. Sure there is a wisp of plot, and there are characters, but they are less important than the way the familiar music is presented to the audience.
Constantine Maroulis was nominated for a 2009 Tony with his portrayal of a would-be rock star tending bar and sweeping up at Club Bourbon. Elisha MacKenzie, who joined the show in Toronto, plays Sherrie, a small-town girl from Kansas who joins the endless pilgrimage to southern California in search of fame, but ends up as a waitress, and then, well, as something much more degrading. All the while, their haunts are threatened with extinction as the forces of gentrification sweep the city.
As noted above, the plot really is just a way of getting these songs on the stage. From the rendition of “Sister Christian” (originally by Night Ranger) when we are introduced to Sherrie, to the grand finale of “Don’t Stop Believing” (Journey) writer Chris D’Arienzo skillfully and creatively weaves these well worn songs into the story line that as the show rolls on you can almost predict what song will come next. “Sherrie” (Steve Perry) is a natural, but audiences will find “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (Twisted Sister) and “Harden My Heart” (Quarter) are just as obvious. This is the fun of Rock of Ages. The story and characters are completely subservient to the music, and they work together in quite unpredictable ways.
And it all flows quite organically, with nearly perfect atmospherics, thanks to inspired work from director Kristin Hanggi, choreographer Kelly Devine, and set designer Beowolf Boritt. If the costumes and set don’t exactly evoke the Sunset Strip of the ‘80’s, it is an acceptable facsimile.
That is the point of this show. As stated, this production is not a nostalgic journey, it is not really set in the ‘80’s. The play has no setting, just a paper-mache milieu to set the songs so many audience members grew up to. With the musicians on stage with the cast, the crowd naturally claps with the music and cheers at the performers. The audience, then, performs for the cast’s benefit and becomes not merely the entertained but the completion of the show’s concept.
Mastering the whole affair is the character Lonnie, played by Patrick Lewallen. Not just the narrator, he talks directly to the crowd, reads from the show’s Playbill and a “Theatre for Dummies” book, and acknowledges that he is in DC, not the Sunset Strip. This is not breaking a fourth wall, because a fourth wall wasn’t put up in the first place. In fact, there’s barely a first, second, or third wall. No attempt is made to convince you that you are looking into some distant reality. The phoniness is given away the moment the house lights go out.
This is a hidden strength of theatre, and a reason why people will probably always go to see live drama. When a film or a comic strip breaks the fourth wall, the audience chuckles at being let in on the joke, but when it breaks in a live performance, the performers and the show are suddenly all around you. You cannot escape unless you run to the sidewalk outside. More than just winking in your direction, the performers are invited to sit down and pat you on the back; sometimes they literally do so. This element of surprise is the “live” in live theater.
Rock of Ages is nothing more or less than a few hours of pure fun that isn’t meant to be taken seriously, but let’s hope that it is.