REVIEW: SLT Rocks the Right Notes in ‘Rock of Ages’

The cast of ROCK OF AGES.
Photo courtesy of Spartanburg Little Theatre

Feel-good, irresistible nostalgia with a bevy of rock numbers we all know and love whether we want to admit or not!

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Sit back and feel the noize as Spartanburg Little Theatre covers the grandest classic rock numbers from the 1980s in the jukebox musical extravaganza “Rock of Ages.”

The company’s fourth annual jaunt into summer fringe material – previous outings include “The Rocky Horror Show” and “Avenue Q” ‑ is feel-good, irresistible nostalgia for those us of in a certain age who survived that decade of excess with big hair for both sexes and cheesy fashion.  It’s a riotous satire of hairbands, rock culture, groupies, the trappings of stardom, the grime of L.A., and the crushing of dreams in general.

Set on Los Angeles’ infamous Sunset Strip at The Bourbon Club (a stand-in for the world-renowned Whiskey a Go-Go), “Rock of Ages,” which spent about six years on Broadway, features a crisp and hilarious story by Chris D’Arienzo and over 30 tunes that will have you moving and grieving in your seat, not to mention waving your arms in unison with cigarette lighters in tow. Ok, they are tiny pen lights but still much more appropriate than the flashing cell phones you see at arena concerts today.

Through the eyes and potty mouth of our Svengali narrator and club manager Lonny (Benjamin Abrams), we learn that this historic nightclub owned by hippie Dennis Dupree (Jim Huber) is going to be demolished and replaced with a “clean living” building project by the corrupt mayor (B.J. Hollis) and a German developer (Zach Ellis) and his son (J.R. Bloomer).

To save the club and prove the club still brings in tax revenue for the city, Lonny brings in rock superstar and narcissistic Stacee Jaxx (Benjamin Augusta) for his final concert with his band Arsenal.

But as Lonny points out to the audience, every musical needs a romantic storyline. Enter lowly bar back Drew (Bryan Hausas) and Kansas farm girl/cocktail waitress Sherrie (Anna Elyse Lewis), both who, like millions before them, have aspirations of making it big in the city’s music and film industries, respectively.

With a brisk pacing and naughty bathroom humor (that’s why this show is inappropriate for youngsters and prudes), “Rock of Ages” sails along with these characters and one rousing hit after another. The music selections and placement isn’t gratuitous, but refreshingly germane to the actions and events in the narrative.

For example, Hollis’ Mayor and City Planner Regina (Samantha Hood in mother-earth attire as she is from Berkeley, or Bezerkeley as the ultra-liberal city is sometimes called) lament the destruction of The Bourbon Club and its musical roots in Starship’s “We Built This City (on rock and roll)” and Hood later leads a protest with Twister Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It.”

Sherrie encourages Drew’s songwriting with another Dee Synder classic “I Wanna Rock” and Drew reciprocates with what else but Journey frontman Steve Perry’s solo hit “Oh Sherrie,” which is likely why D’Arienzo chose his heroine’s name. And there are several power ballads that genuinely set the tone such as “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger and “I Want to Know What Love Is” by “Foreigner.

Other songs are for pure entertainment: Styx’s “Too Much Time on my Hands” and Augusta’s powerful entrance with Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” replete with a stylish cowboy hat.

But the cleverness of the “Rock of Ages” score (which, despite its title, doesn’t include the Def Leppard composition), lies in the interesting mashups of songs like Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You” with Asia’s “Heat of the Moment,” “Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night” with Suzy Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart” and a fantastic, heartfelt triple-play merging of “More Than Words” by Extreme, Mr. Big’s “To Be With You” and Warrant’s “Heaven.”

The vocal work in “Rock of Ages” is top-notch all around including offstage backup vocals and harmonies with music direction by Shawn Allen in his first stint in that role after years of playing guitar in SLT productions.  And moreover, the incredible live band is on the stage of The Bourbon Club as the band Arsenal and decked out in full-costume and make-up.

Miss Lewis, star of last year’s fringe musical “Xanadu” is delightful of course, as are longtime company performers Hollis and Ellis (who stretches his range and soars to new musical heights here). Also, Augusta, better known for his Greenville Little Theatre starring roles, makes his first appearance on the SLT stage since Hairspray several seasons ago.

But equal credit for the success of this production goes to the newcomers such as the musician Hauss in his FIRST theatrical show ever, and Limestone College student Bloomer in a hysterical and committed performance (the song “Gay or European” comes to mind) as the zany son Franz.

But I save my highest praise for seasoned actor and Florida transplant Huber and a young man who very recently caught the acting bug, Abrams. Both have been appearing on the Chapman Cultural Center stage for over a year in ensemble and bit parts, but achieve a new level of awareness and respect in these elevated roles. Abrams, in particular, is charismatic, comfortable engaging with (and confronting) the audience when he breaks the fourth wall and demonstrates a penchant for physicality as he guides us through this story with glee and rhythm.

Hood sells her dedicated Regina and Daneille Oden shines as the strip club owner, Mother. The ensemble also includes Spartanburg Youth Theatre Director Adam Sanders and as scantily-clad rocker chicks right out of a Whitesnake music video: Anna Lee Altman, Verity Arden (a la Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn), and Erin O’Neil.

SLT’s Executive Artistic Director Jay Coffman, leaps from Cuba (the recent “Guys and Dolls”) to Los Angeles with this astutely entertaining piece and delivers another winsome musical with flair and just the right level of innuendo and quirkiness.

The massive club set was designed by Tim Baxter-Ferguson, the exhilarating concert lighting by Peter Lamson, period costumes (and wardrobe surprises) by Will Luther III, and choreography by Giulia Marie Dalbec. Cassandra Scott is Stage Manager. And kudos to the video design that greatly enhances the location settings and the kinetic sense of movement.

Again, this how is rated PG-13 and not suitable for young children.

“Rock of Ages” continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through July 22 at the Chapman Cultural Center, 200 East St. John St in Spartanburg. For tickets, call the box office at (864) 542-ARTS or visit www.chapmanculturalcenter.org.

 

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