April 11, 2009

Rocking out with "Rock of Ages"

As soon as I hear about a new jukebox musical, I call my sister Joanne. She loves them. And she’s not ashamed of that. It’s been eight years but I still regret rushing her out of the Winter Garden before she’d finished bopping out to Mamma Mia!’s curtain call reprise of “Dancing Queen.” And I knew Good Vibrations had no chance when she tried to hurry me out of that theater. So it was a no-brainer to ask her to go with me to see Rock of Ages.

Unlike Mamma Mia! (ABBA) or Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys) or All Shook Up (Elvis), Rock of Ages isn’t built around the songbook of one artist. Instead, it’s a kind of three-dimensional tribute album to the arena-rock era of the ‘80s (Pat Benatar, Bon Jovi, Journey, Styx). The musical’s first-time lead producers say they got the idea for the show when they heard a Journey song on the radio and thought it would be great to have a whole theater of people singing along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (click here to read a New York Times article about the making of the musical).

I have to confess that I didn’t know the Journey song because it came out during that period of music, between ‘70s folk rock and disco and ‘90s grunge and gangsta rap, that I tuned out entirely.
What excited me about seeing Rock of Ages is its policy of in-seat drink service during the performance. Just the idea of that has appalled many traditional theatergoers (“I hope you don’t sit next to some hurling college student,” my husband K said as I was leaving home for the theater that night). But I was willing to take the risk for a chance to kick back and sip a little chardonnay while I watched a show.

The wine ($10 bucks for a big plastic cup that contained very little of the grape) was only so-so. But it was amusing to watch the waiters scoot up and down the aisles in a Grouch Marx crouch as they looked for thirsty customers and tried to stay out of people's sight lines. Somehow they missed the woman sitting in the row in front of Joanne and me, who kept waving and flashing one of the mini-lights the ushers handed out and that our waiter said would summon drink service. It didn’t. She bolted for the bar at intermission.

To my surprise, however, the real fun was on stage. Now let me say it as clearly as I can: this is not a good show. But let me also say this: it’s a totally entertaining show. The boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl plot is predictable and silly and the jokes and Kelly Devine’s pole-dancing-centric choreography are cheesy. But Rock of Ages doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. Book writer Chris D’Arienzo and director Kristin Hanggi have made sure that when you laugh, you’re laughing with them, not at them. This is a Xanadu for straight guys.

The action takes place in a soon-to-be demolished rock club on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. The boy, a recent arrival from the Midwest with dreams of rock stardom, is winningly played by Constatine Maroulis, a finalist from the fourth season of TV’s “American Idol,” which is turning out to be quite a farm team for Broadway. The waitress he loves is played by the talented Broadway vet Amy Spanger. The other man, the lead singer of a hit rock band who temporarily lures her away, is James Carpinello, who, as his Playbill bio points out, has become the king of juke box musicals with roles in
Saturday Night Fever and Xanadu (although he broke his foot before opening night). The crowd-pleasing role of a Cabaret-style emcee is played by Mitchell Jarvis, who looks like the love child of Jack Black and Norbert Leo Butz and gets extra points from me for one of the funniest Playbill bios I’ve ever read.

The music is LOUD. But the songs are nicely integrated into the flimsy plot. And hearing them is what most of the people who will go to see Rock of Ages will care about. And they won’t all be aging Gen-Xers either. Music video games like “Guitar Hero” have created a whole new audience for rock music and those young fans will get a kick out of this too. The producers (all 25 of them) are doing everything they can to woo both of these groups to Broadway. Instead of holding audience talkbacks, they've invited real arena bands to play after some performances. And in a move that I hope will catch on, they've capped the ticket price at $99. Rock on!


Esther said...

Wow, you do make this sound like fun! Although when I read about the drink service, I wondered how disruptive it would be.

I'm happy for James Carpinello, too. I was listening to an interview after his accident and apparently it was literally and figuratively a bad break. So I'm glad he's back on his feet.

jan@broadwayandme said...

It is fun, Esther. Mindless fun. But we've all got enough on our minds right now and a bit of silliness is a welcomed break.