I was expecting to not like “Rock of Ages,” the rock musical that opened Thursday at the INB Performing Arts Center as part of the Best of Broadway series.
After all, what good is a jukebox musical if the music isn’t to your taste? Hair metal from the 1980s? Whitesnake? REO Speedwagon? Twisted Sister? No thanks.
So imagine my surprise when after about five minutes my head started to bob and I began to smile. “Rock of Ages” is many things – profane, raunchy, loud and garish. Yes, much like the ’80s. But it’s also cheesy, funny, irreverent and ultimately good-hearted.
This sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll story – about a boy (Drew, played by understudy Joshua Hobbs on Thursday) and a girl (Sherrie, played by Shannon Mullan) who meet at a legendary club on the Sunset Strip – is paper thin. He wants to be a rocker, she hopes to be an actress. They find themselves at the Bourbon Room, run by ex-hippie Dennis Dupree (Jacob L. Smith) and populated by assorted waitresses and Lonny (Justin Colombo), who serves as our narrator.
The Bourbon Room is threatened when German father-and-son team Hertz and Franz (Philip Peterson and a hilarious Stephen Michael Kane) want to bring clean, efficient, European-style living to L.A.’s seedy strip. This plan sparks young Berkeley graduate Regina (Megan McHugh) to launch a protest movement (“Strippers not strip malls” reads one sign). It also prompts Lonny and Dennis to book the final performance by Arsenal and lead singer Stacee Jaxx (Universo Pereira), who is about to go solo.
Drew and Sherrie begin to fall for each other, but pledge to be just friends. Both actors have some lovely moments in the opening act, she singing a version of Extreme’s “No More Words” and he a cover of Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You.”
Budding love is derailed when Jaxx and his blond mane arrive on scene, wearing tight white pants, a white sparkly cowboy hat and six-pack abs. The character is clearly inspired by Axl Rose and Bret Michaels, and Pereira dives into the performance with gusto. His energetic and well-sung version of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” is the high point of the first act.
Drew lands a slot opening for Arsenal, but is crushed after he watches Stacee and Sherrie sneak off to the men’s room for a tryst. When Stacee demands Dennis fire Sherrie, she runs to Drew, who rejects her. As Act I ends, Drew has a new manager and Sherrie finds work down the strip, as an exotic dancer.
Things really kick into gear in Act II. Drew’s slimy manager has tried to put him in a boy band, leaving him to lament, “I Wanna Rock.” Sherrie, meanwhile, is dismayed at seeing her acting dreams wrapped around a stripper pole.
Two funny and high-energy numbers really get the crowd roaring with laughter. “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” becomes the anthem of Regina’s protest, as the son, Franz, joins them. As Franz, Kane nearly steals every scene he’s in. As the woman sitting next to me noted, he has great body language. He never simply leaves the stage. It’s a small gesture here, another there. It adds up to a funny performance. When he rebuffs his father it’s in an outfit that looks stolen from Richard Simmons’ closet.
Then it’s on to Dennis and Lonny’s big number, as they realize the Bourbon Room is doomed. They duet “I Can’t Fight This Feeling.”
As Lonny, Colombo is the glue who holds the show together. He’s crude, vulgar, funny and more than willing to break the fourth wall. By the time “Rock of Ages” gets to the final number – Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” – we have (mostly) happy endings all around. And for a time, at least, I enjoyed revisiting the 1980s.