Rock of Ages is loud, proud tribute to the '80s.
Rock of Ages wears its heart on its sleeve and leopard print just about everywhere else. Set in 1980s L.A., it's an unashamed revue of slick, dumb rock ballads. It runs through Dec. 9 at Overture Hall.
When the narrator opens with lines like "All the guy wants to do is rock your balls," you know this isn't a subtle show. But Rock of Ages is all about the music. With more than 30 songs, it has the quantity part down. But those expecting deep cuts of Def Leppard will be disappointed, as the set list focuses on hits by Journey and Foreigner.
The numbers that rely on the production's live band felt the closest to authentic rock 'n' roll. A loud, instrumental-heavy rendition of "Cum On Feel the Noise" felt especially appropriate for the show. Still, no amount of live drumming will ever make "We Built This City" sound like rock to me. And on occasion, the band overpowered the dialogue and a few of the weaker voices.
Despite these problems, the cast was excellent. This touring production's performers are seasoned Off-Broadway players, and it shows. Chris Sams riffs a bit on his character, throwing some Katt Williams into his lines. Opening night had Danny McHugh in the lead role of Drew, the struggling barback and wannabe rocker who insists on being called Wolfgang Von Colt.
Though he's rather unassuming, McHugh is a standout vocalist who nails the piercing high notes of hair-metal balladry and the boy-band croon necessitated by the narrative's inevitable "selling out" chapter. Unfortunately, that same perfect croon is also used to turn parts of "I Wanna Rock" into a soulful duet, with annoyingly sanitized results.
Lonny, the mulleted narrator, goes to the trouble of introducing the characters, but one look will tell you which archetype applies to each. With Lonny, fourth-wall breaks abound, as do scatalogical jokes. But Lonny steals several scenes. showing there's talent in the writing. Credits for some of the original songs belong to Chris Hardwick of the popular Nerdist podcast, but the jokes too often feel familiar.
Though Rock of Ages' story is laden with clichés, everyone seems too carefree to do anything about it. The narrator briefly laments that he, like the audience and the lonely lead, isn't where he expected to be in life. He wanted to do "important theater with complex characters and a challenging plot," not narrate a show with Whitesnake and crude jokes. Luckily, Lonny's love of Whitesnake helps him accept his place in the entertainment world.
Rock of Ages doesn't aspire to high art, but its format and audience interaction might give it a longer-than-expected shelf life. But after turning one too many "rock" songs into Glee-like homages, it just doesn't inspire.