It’s crude! It’s loud! It’s terribly constructed! And it’s polarizing!
Well, that last phrase is my own editorial comment, but the authors of Rock of Ages actually advertise the first three in the evening’s oddest moment, in which a gyrating, leather-clad narrator pulls out a Playbill of Rock of Ages and explains to sweet-faced protagonist Drew (American Idol alum Constantine Maroulis) that he’s trapped in a shallow, cartoony travesty of art. It’s meant to be clever and metatheatrical, but Pirandello this ain’t. All it proves that every aspect of the evening—including plot—has been sacrificed at the altar of nostalgia: nothing original is left to stand. The evening’s pleasures are thus measured solely by allusions to 1980’s popular culture, including ghastly music videos, television ads, fashion, and film.
The basic—and polarizing—problem is this: at least some audience members at the Majestic actually came to see theater. You know, the type with plot and stuff. Choreography that develops character. Dialogue that lasts more than three minutes. Instead, Rock of Ages is a non-stop medley of hard rockin’ 80’s hits, from Poison, Whitesnake, Pat Benetar et al., shoehorned into the slimmest of plots. (In a nutshell: boy-meets-girl, club owner-meets-real estate developer; metatheatrical narrator meets all of us.) The brilliant thing about Xanadu, the Musical (which I confess to seeing twice) is that it knew exactly how long to mock the excesses of the 1980’s before diving back into a story—and it still managed to wrap things up in ninety minutes. At two-and-half-hours, Rock of Ages feels like it goes on for
The script is at its best when it’s at its most restrained, including a Grease-inspired picnic featuring that most refined of beverages—a four-pack of Bartles & Jaymes. (Wine coolers: the acme of the eighties.) It’s at its worst when it employs crudity without wit. (A sample name for a rock band: “Steel Jizz.” But jizz, I suggest, is viscous, and should be carefully distinguished from the properties of, say, testicles. Funnier? “Molten Jizz.” Other suggestions are welcome, but this debate gives you a taste of the evening.) Sometimes snippets of songs are cleverly inserted—Europe’s “The Final Countdown” propels the plot of the superior second act—but songs often have a far more tenuous (and frustrating) relationship to the narrative. Things are happier in terms of design. Beowolf Borritt just nabbed a Tony nomination for his elegant and restrained set for The Scottsboro Boys, but here, Borritt unleashes his inner club boy, designing a marvelously seedy, overstuffed nightspot on LA’s Sunset Strip. Director Kristin Hanggi pulls out all the stops in the staging, but is constantly hampered by Chris D’Arienzo’s disjointed script: scenes and songs tend to end before they really start, an inherent peril of the jukebox format.
The good news is that Majestic patrons who really love REO Speedwagon and Twisted Sister—I mean, love them so much your iPod has them on shuffle—will find much to enjoy: the best numbers are rocked out absolutely straight, as a sort of wide-eyed tribute to the exuberance of glam. Maroulis won critical acclaim (and a Tony nomination) for his performance on Broadway, and one can see why: the guy’s got chops. As his love interest, Elicia MacKenzie can grind her pelvis with the best of ’em, and a supporting cast has got game. The concluding anthem—Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”—had much of the audience on its feet, awash in the overwhelming eighties-ness of it all.
But to what end? As my companion remarked on the way home, it’s astounding that the evening’s villain is a money-grubbing capitalist; after all, what is more capitalist than Rock of Ages, which takes a known product (glam rock), with market-researched potential consumers (35 to 45 year-olds, and American Idol fans), and sells it at an outrageous mark-up? My sense is that Broadway Across America has a problem on its hands—while many non-subscribers might fit this profile, its (presumably) older subscriber base was voting with its feet: there were plenty of empty seats at intermission. (Even more so than for the updated, down’n’dirty West Side Story, with its now infamous scene of simulated ejaculation. And who’d have thunk that semen would be a leitmotif of the spring Broadway Across America season? A critic’s job is full of surprises.)
So: I had been looking forward to RoA all spring—I like campy spectacles—but the script’s overlong, slipshod structure finally sabotages the evening. But if you could care less about plot—and care deeply about big hair, tight pants, and glittering guitars—then by all means, rock on.
--Thomas "I Used to Have Hair Like That" Jenkins