Former American Idol contestant Constantine Maroulis stars in Rock of Ages. Photo courtesy of the National Theatre
The shuffling, verbally incontinent presence of Steven Adler on this season’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew should be a reminder to us all of how long ago the ’80s were, and the still-extravagantly teased coiffure of the same man should also remind us of what a good thing that is. And yet, should you so wish, you can return to the era of Dynasty and Def Leppard this month at the National Theatre, where the ’80s-themed guitar-fest Rock of Ages stops on its national tour, featuring a playlist of the kind that would make God and Steve Perry weep.
Its it a musical? Not really. Is it a stadium concert? Almost. Is it a mishmash of the two genres with a plot so thin you could poke holes in it with a scrunchie? Yes. Not even the great state of Wisconsin could rival the utter cheese-fest that director Kristin Hanggi and writer Chris D’Arienzo have come up with, a rock comedy which alternates between painfully ironic self-awareness and Bon Jovi-esque sincerity. In other words, it makes Mamma Mia! look like Chekhov, and at the same time, it doesn’t really matter. Anyone who’s been to a wedding or a bar in the last ten years can testify to the fact that classic rock will never, ever die, and combined with the theatrics of a Broadway production and the dubious star power of an ex- American Idol contestant, the premise is a sure-fire moneymaker.
Underpinning songs by Journey, Pat Benatar, Poison, Styx, and more is the story of Drew (Constantine Maroulis), a shy wannabe rock star who spends his days writing awkward song lyrics and his nights cleaning up vomit as a bar back at The Bourbon Room, a Hollywood club. Drew falls in love with Sherri (Elicia MacKenzie), but his sweet-natured courtship is interrupted by a feckless rock star, Stacee Jaxx (Peter Deiwick), who entices Sherri into a bathroom stall and then gets her fired, prompting the fresh-faced heroine to take up stripping. A sub-plot involves a German developer and his inexplicably camp son, both of whom want to sanitize the strip by building Foot Lockers and coffee houses in place of gentleman’s clubs and bars, while a helpful narrator (Patrick Lewallen) steps in to explain things whenever the lyrics of Bret Michaels aren’t exposition enough.
It’s possibly unfair to delve too deeply into the narrative of a show which boasts a bright blue spandex unitard as its most compelling character, but let’s do it anyway. Considering that both the director (Hangii) and choreographer (Kelly Devine) are female, this is the most profoundly anti-feminist show this reviewer has ever seen (although when you consider that Hangii first found fame by developing The Pussycat Dolls, it all vaguely falls into place). Female protagonist Sherri, a veritable blushing ingenue, sleeps with a seedy rockstar after the briefest of interactions, before losing her job, losing her love interest, and being condemned to work against her will as a stripper. I won’t give away the conclusion, but let’s just say it’s a happy ending that Pat Benatar and Joan Jett would spit on.
Luckily, despite the off-key performances, badly amplified speech, inexplicable videography, and semi-offensive scenes featuring girls in thongs, the people who love Journey will undoubtedly love this show. The soundcheck seems to have focused on the songs, which are loud enough (and, let’s face it, classic enough) to distract from the hokey performances (with the exception of Deiwick, who is as charismatic and entrancing as Stacee Jaxx as Maroulis is the boy you really regret making out with at junior prom). The five-piece live band, which deservedly gets a lot of attention during the show, pretty much holds everything together. And the minor characters of club owner Dennis (Nick Cordero) and Lonny (Lewallen) deserve credit for continually poking fun at themselves. In a show this winkingly self-aware, it occasionally helps when the cast don’t take themselves too seriously. Or when they remember that, as Steven Tyler once said, “As good as I am, I’m nothing without my band.”