"I wanted to explore deep, thoughtful theatre," deadpans a giddily vitriolic narrator, played here in a last minute swap-out by Mitchell Jarvis, during the eleventh hour of "Rock of Ages". Although referring to any aspect of this rollicking, trenchantly self-aware jukebox ride in classical terms may either be mawkishly generous or downright offensive to its recalcitrant intent. After all, in a production adorned with sequined motor jackets, zippy pop hits and fried and dyed locks, no one wants to bogart that joint.
Impishly situated amongst a seemingly relentless throng of hit-or-miss jukebox musicals, "Rock of Ages" is a puckish offering that delivers the sort of raucous treats that stretch beyond the initial charm of its pungent 80s nostalgia. With the searing vocals of an fiery cast dispatching a hayrick of hits from the likes of Bon Jovi, Journey, Pet Benatar, Whitesnake and Poison, all amidst Beowulf Boritt's stylized backdrop of L.A.'s Sunset Strip, it is no wonder why an oscillating audience chorus of glow lighters is quick to blaze.
But it is where these candied, period-clasped morsels give way to banality in its karaoke brethren that "Rock of Ages" pulls out the stops and sprawls its improvisatory muscles just enough to create a wholly unexpected, preposterously enjoyable night of theatre.
The move beyond the transient allure of acid-washed denim and air guitar solos is captained by the production's zany, yet consummately able-bodied troika of leaders: director Kristin Hanggi, book writer Chris D'Arienzo, and choreographer Kelly Devine. Harmonious in their unyielding love of oversized tresses and crowd-surfing euphoria, these three artists have ventured, both miraculously and surprisingly, where but few of their musical ersatz siblings have gone before. Through Hanggi and Devine's spirited, carefree staging to D'Arienzo's winkingly self-cognized book, "Rock of Ages" is refreshingly unapologetic in its offering. Here is a laid-back, cool for school carousal where rock's the only word that matters. Anyone looking for that deep, thoughtful dramatic experience is asked, if somewhat repeatedly, to get bent.
Ah, and there's that vinyl-thick dividing line between "Rock of Ages" and its oft flailing family. It neither tugs at the heart ("Mamma Mia") or reaches for the cerebellum ("Jersey Boys"). What remains is a joyously glib sabbatical for the intellect.
But as the faux-rocker David St. Hubbins once wisely mused in the ancestral "This is Spinal Tap", there is indeed a fine line between stupid and clever. Fortunately, D'Arienzo is well versed in the lyrical trapeze.
Blithely fettered to a string of rousing anthems is the unfazed story of Drew (a powerhouse Constantine Maroulis) who assumes the janitorial duty at the Bourbon Room, a once heralded but now seedy joint on the Sunset Strip. Amidst greased-up loiterers and the only partially-clothed dancers, Drew's dream of reaching guitar-hero stardom remains afloat. It is in the Bourbon Room that Drew meets small-town Sherrie (the winning Rebecca Faulkenberry) who is fanning the fires of her own silver screen aspirations. It is while fending off no-good developers (Chicago's Travis Walker and Bret Tuomi) and womanizing belters (the wonderfully madcap MiG Ayessa) that Drew and Sherrie are able to finally strum the chords that bind them.
As far as narrative arcs are concerned, this one is as dramatically void as it gets. But the matters of character and plot are of little concern when the likes of Maroulis and Faulkenberry are cranking out sweltering renditions of "Don't Stop Believing" and "We Built This City" at full-throttle lung. It is the production's simultaneous employment of razor parody (bottles of Bartles & Jaymes make several notable appearances) and adamant affection for the bittersweet Regan era that elevates "Rock of Ages". The after effects may be as fleeting as a cold wine cooler, but this is surely nothin' but a good time. And by the moment the last fog machine blasts, it's hard not to get swept away.
"Rock of Ages" runs through October 3, 2010 at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit BroadwayInChicago.com.
Written by: Alissa Norby for ShowBizChicago.com