Broadway’s tenth anniversary tour of Rock of Ages travelled to the Overture Center on Feb. 7 to bestow its hilarious and harmonious blend of rock and musical theatre upon the people of Madison. While, yes, the crescendos were deafening and the performances astounding, the show was definitely closer to a 1980s rock concert than a 2018 Broadway musical, so there is a certain mindset needed in order to fully enjoy this production.
This show epitomizes 1987 rock-n-roll culture— denim-on-denim, big-hair, drugged-up culture — by including an abundance of crass humor, hedonism and hypersexuality, making for a fun but pointedly controversial show in today's culture.
The play’s unpleasantly male-dominated cast and objectification of the female characters was partially reconciled through the show’s self-mocking nature. Whether or not its self-deprecating sense of humor was a saving grace, in terms of political-correctness, is hard to say.
In one obvious attempt to poke fun at the show’s (and era’s) own pitfalls, there’s a character literally named and referred to as “Waitress Number One.” To me, this joke evoked two immediate reactions: one, it was very funny and smart for the writers to acknowledge the sexism in the room, and two, it convinced me that the show was sarcastically exemplifying the objectification and devaluation of women.
Ultimately, it’s up to audience members to decide whether or not the show is glorifying a sexist culture. It is possible that the point wasn’t to glorify but rather appreciate the culture--as flawed and imperfect as it was-- for gifting us with some admittedly bangin’ music.
I digress. For anyone looking to reminisce on rock and roll’s hayday, this show was packed with enough hit songs and references to satisfy the biggest metalhead in the room. For someone with a low tolerance for female under-representation and objectification, maybe sit this one out.
Taking the show for what it was and with more than a few grains of salt, it was damn entertaining. Opening with narrator Lonny, played by John-Michael Breen, and the impressive ensemble in a rendition of “Cum on Feel the Noize”, the tone of the show was set: loud, powerful, and energetic.
Breen did a fantastic job weaving in and out of the scenes and provided most of the meta jokes and observations from his storyteller perspective. His flamboyant personality and impeccable timing were engrossing. His performance and overall look was reminiscent of Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig.
The plot of Rock of Ages certainly wasn’t its strongest point. Compared to its music, the storyline was unremarkable. In most musicals relationships, themes and plot development are all developed before the music is written, with the music being used as a vehicle to deliver them. In Rock of Ages, the plot seemed to be just a vehicle to deliver the music.The mediocre storyline was written solely to stick in as many crowd favorites as possible: “Mamma Mia” syndrome, one could call it.
The main characters, Drew and Sherrie, are just a city boy and a small town girl (born and raised in South Detroit). Played by Anthony Nuccio and Katie LaMark, the two meet in a rock club in LA and connect through their mutual love of rock and roll. They both like each other, but their budding romance is delayed by their inability to communicate their emotions, which leads to Sherrie hooking up with Stacee Jaxx, the ultra famous and egotistical rock star, played by Sam Harvey, who comes through town.
Nuccio’s vocal range, power and control were unmatchable. Every high note unequivocally brought down the house. LaMark, as well, had a powerful voice, and the duo’s innocent yet electric chemistry made them a pair that you had to root for.
While the relationships between these few characters was the main focus of the show, there was at times a confusing, although altogether hysterical, subplot supplemented throughout, which revolved around the mayor of Los Angeles, played by Darrell Purcell Jr. and his run-in with Hertz and Franz, a pair of German developers who want to tear down the Sunset Strip.
Of this trio of performers — Purcell Jr. as Mayor, Andrew Tebo as Hertz and Chris Renalds as Franz — Renalds stood out among the rest. The character of Franz had the most dramatic arc of the entire show, and he was hilarious to watch. Renalds’ flawless accent, over-zealous mannerisms and jaw-dropping voice made him a memorable cast member, and all of these features caught the spotlight during “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” when Franz decided to go against his partner Hertz and fight to save the Strip.
Also rallying for the Strip was Kristina Walz playing Ragina, a feisty, rock-loving justice warrior, who fought the developers every step of the way. Walz’s voice was piercingly clear, and her range was fantastic.
In fact, there wasn’t a voice in the show that disappointed. Every performer seemed to have perfected the belting tone of ‘80s rock, even Waitress Number One (Brenna Wahl), who had one astounding solo during a mashup of “More than Words” by Extreme, “To Be With You” by Mr. Big, and “Heaven” by Warrent.
Because of the sheer talent of all of the performers, the force of the ensemble during power ballads like “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister and the finale, “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey truly floored audience members.
Rock of Ages should be taken for what it is: an excuse to laugh, enjoy some incredibly talented performers and rock out to some of the biggest hits in rock music. Without dwelling too much on the social implications and at times questionable plot, you can appreciate the show for the completely fun, entertaining and hilarious production that it is.
Emma Hellmer is our theater columnist. To read more of her work, click here.