‘Rock of Ages’ at National Theatre starts slow, finishes strong
By Nelson Pressley
July 14, 2011
Spandex, bandanas and big hair have taken over the National Theatre in “Rock of Ages,” the jukebox musical that urges you to pump your fists and flick your Bics to near-forgotten hits by the likes of Bon Jovi and Twisted Sister. Loud and stupid are guaranteed.
But is it good loud and stupid? Not the disinterested way it was delivered Tuesday night. What you want from “Rock of Ages,” and what it seems to promise, is a David Lee Roth fever dream of giddy California girls and thunderous, arena-scaled beats. What you get at the National Theatre is a limp imitation of a randy Van Halen video.
Chris D’Arienzo’s story, stitched together to fit all or parts of more than two dozen Big Eighties hits into two and a half hours, follows the “party on” plotting of many an early era MTV video. A scuzzy but beloved club on the Sunset Strip is threatened by corporate dweebs; will the bar, and the free spirit it represents, survive? And will the cute but bashful barback Drew find the courage of his rock star convictions and get Sherrie, the Kansas-bred girl of his dreams?
With enough high spirits, punch lines and stratospheric singing, “Rock of Ages” could be yet another guilty pleasure jukebox event. A film is already in the works, directed by Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”) and with Tom Cruise, Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin lined up for some of the broadly comic supporting roles.
Does this touring cast already feel like yesterday’s news? The first act is a generic blur; it doesn’t rock, and it’s not funny (though it’s plenty naughty; with no credit to Tipper Gore, there’s a parental advisory on the Web site). The performers have the pipes to belt out 80s party anthems like “Nothin’ But a Good Time” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” keeping up with the reliable rock band at the back of the stage. But even though the Poison-Foreigner-REO Speedwagon songs and D’Arienzo’s brief scenes require only two gears — gutsy or goofy — the performance keeps gunning in neutral.
It’s so careless you almost stop rooting for the impossibly sweet lovebirds, played by talent show alums Constantine Maroulis (“American Idol”) and Elicia MacKenzie (Canada’s “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”). Maroulis was with this show off-Broadway in 2008 and on Broadway in 2009, earning a Tony nomination; he acts the part of Drew bashfully, with nervous glances at the audience (the cast winks at the crowd all night), and sings as confidently as you’d expect. MacKenzie, though, could assert herself a lot more as the good girl who unwillingly goes bad.
The design utilizes 80s fog and video effects, but the spectacle in Kristin Hanggi’s energetic, efficient staging is in Gregory Gale’s costume design, with a nod to Tom Watson’s hair and wigs. The whole show is a wardrobe malfunction dying to happen, with female bodies threatening to fall out of scanty clothing all night. Choreography? Kelly Devine’s dances feature so much strip club strutting you may unwittingly leave the theater walking that way.
The show finally starts to click during the last half hour, as power ballads soar to campy heights in duets that generate real laughs. The singers plant their feet and screech tunefully at each other and the crowd, and until the cast goads the audience into an unearned standing ovation, you finally get why this is headed for the cineplex, playing internationally, and still running on Broadway. And you wonder, where has all that wonderful silliness and sass been?
“Rock of Ages,” book by Chris D’Arienzo. Directed by Kristin Hanggi. Set design, Beowulf Boritt; lights, Jason Lyons; sound design, Peter Hylenski; projection design, Zak Borovay. About two and a half hours.