Regional Reviews: Chicago
Rock of Ages
I'll be honest: I never saw the show before this opening night, and in fact never thought I'd missed anything much. I was so wrong! Yes, the show exists as a not-very-embellished excuse for playing lots of fun songs the audience will remember and enjoy–but so what? If we like the characters (which we do, even the worst of them), if we love to laugh (who doesn't?), and if '80s rock doesn't make us cringe (and let's face it, '80s rock went far past cringe at times, but the very fact that we fondly remember songs like "I Wanna Know What Love Is," "Just Like Paradise," and "Waiting For a Girl Like You" tells us that the decade produced some excellent work), we are bound to enjoy the play. (Note though: the title song, "Rock of Ages" by Def Leppard, does not actually appear in the show, which is weird, but with so many memorable tunes here, who really cares?)
Director Tommy Novak doesn't miss a trick when it comes to staging this show for full-metal silliness. They obviously know that absolutely anything goes, so they pull nothing back. I imagine them just laughing and saying "sure" to every weird idea anyone threw at them. (Can we put a male dancer in drag in the stripper dance? Sure, why not? Let's put him on a balcony and spotlight him! We can thumb our collective noses at Tennessee!) I'm sure Novak had at least as much fun as anyone else creating this production.
As the narrator, Lonny (who is also a character; he works at the Bourbon Room, where most of the play takes place), Michael Metcalf (one of many actors wearing absolutely wonderful and huge wigs by wig designer Keith Ryan, whose work here reflects pretty much every style you remember from the '80s) jumps in and out of character so much that, by himself, he turns that fourth wall into a random pile of broken garbage. He is so much fun that we go along with anything he does, and so good at everything that he gives away the focus in choral numbers and then smoothly jumps back in, seemingly out of nowhere. He's so genuine that even his campiest scenes–and there are many–don't diminish our affection for him. And, like everyone here, he has a killer rock voice.
Speaking of killer voices, the romantic leads, David Moreland as wannabe rocker Drew and Kayla Marie Shipman as aspiring actress Sherrie, have the kind of voices you build shows around. Here he shows off a brilliant rock tenor that would have been at home with most of the groups featured in the show, while she (a real triple threat, acting, singing and dancing) is a Broadway-level soprano who brightens every scene she is in. Their characters meet sort-of cute and seem instantly destined for each other in a Danny and Sandy kind of way, but Drew is too shy to state his love out loud, with the result being that he ends up calling them "friends" to her face. It's awkward, but we've all seen this kind of thing before, so even when he is delivering food and she is dancing in a "gentlemen's club," we know these are merely dues they have to pay before happily-ever-after.
That gentlemen's club, by the way, is owned by Justice (Sharriese Hamilton), who lends her own glorious voice to "Harden My Heart" as she tries to convince Sherrie that she will be all right if she takes a job in her club. Later, she joins with other characters feeling down about their lives in "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." The Bourbon Room, meanwhile, is owned by Dennis (Steve Watts), who seems a bit enigmatic at the start but, once we really know him, is an extremely likable character who even attracts the affection of one of his workers (in one of the play's most high-camp moments).
Other significant characters and plotlines involve Jeff Diebold and Aaron Davidson as father-son Germans who are behind the urban development that threatens to remove "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" from the entire Sunset Strip. (Davidson, in particular, is outstanding in a breakout role.) The son falls in love with the leader of the protests against the project, former City Planner Regina–"rhymes with pussy"–played by Veronica Garza, who adds many layers of camp to this already campy show. (It's the kind of musical that names a character Sherrie Christian just so it can pay her tribute with songs featuring both of her names: Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie" and Night Ranger's "Sister Christian." It's also the kind of musical that isn't afraid to add bits of choreography (by Laura Savage) and blocking that imitate things we remember from the '80s.)
Meanwhile, Stacee Jaxx (Donovan Hoffer), the constantly drunk and/or stoned lead singer of a band called Arsenal, arrives as a hoped-for savior for the Bourbon Room but actually destroys everything he touches. Jaxx is the living embodiment of the decadent rock lifestyle, hitting on any female he meets (including Sherrie) and ruining them as easily as he ruins his own life with his habits. (Though Tom Cruise patterned his movie performance after Jim Morrison and Axl Rose, Hoffer seems to call upon memories of Keith Richards, or maybe Johnny Depp's Richards impersonation for the Pirates of the Caribbean films, for his stylization of Jaxx.)
In addition to Savage's wonderful choreography and Ryan's great wigs, Novak worked with a fine group of designers: Linda Madonia directs the aforementioned kick-ass five-piece band; Bob Knuth has created a busy/fun stage that has one or two surprises in it; G. "Max" Maxin IV had all sorts of fun designing lights for what is, after all, a show that is part concert, boosted by Stefanie M. Senior's outstanding sound design; Bob Kuhn's inventive costumes and Lonnae Hickman's properties are perfect (and often hilarious). Every bit of this brain trust, along with the effort of the actors, has gone into making this production extremely crowd-pleasing. (And trust me: the opening night crowd was extremely pleased.)
Rock of Ages will never make anyone's list of all-time best musicals, and sometimes is left off lists of all-time best jukebox musicals, but it is probably one of the most entertaining shows of this genre. Miss it and you miss one of the silliest, rockingest, and just plain fun shows of the year.
Rock of Ages runs through September 10, 2023, at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit mercurytheaterchicago.com.