Review: ‘Rock of Ages’ at New World Stages

The outrageously funny and wildly audacious jukebox musical Rock of Ages is back in New York to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its Broadway debut in 2009, in an open-ended Off-Broadway engagement at New World Stages. With a retro score covering some of the biggest classic rock hits of the ‘80s, and a laugh-out-loud lyrics-referencing book by Chris D’Arienzo, the over-the-top parody, set on LA’s Sunset Strip during the Reagan era, takes us to a different “sexier time” with a Republican administration, wine coolers, the sexploitation of women in strip clubs, and crude unabashed comments about the female anatomy. Oh, wait . . . well at least nobody drinks wine coolers anymore.

P.J. Griffith (center) and the cast. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Presented in the format of a meta-theatrical narrative, the hilarious script is filled with raunchy jokes and sight gags, self-referencing humor and breaks through the fourth wall, as Lonny, assistant manager of the Bourbon Room, recounts the history of the club and its hedonistic denizens. His story revolves around the struggle to save the bar, and the Strip, from the clean-up attempts of a German developer and a greedy mayor, by way of local activism (demanding “Strippers not Strip Malls”) and a lucrative farewell concert by burned-out fading rock star Stacee Jaxx and his soon-to-be-former band Arsenal. Also central to the story is the relationship of “small-town girl” and aspiring actress Sherrie with “city boy” and rock-star wannabe Drew (yup, “born and raised in south Detroit,” as in Journey’s definitive 1981 anthem “Don’t Stop Believin’”), because – as Lonny tells the audience in a comical direct-address aside – to be successful, all musicals “need a love story.”

The original Broadway design team of Beowulf Boritt (set), Zachary Borovay (projections), Jason Lyons (lighting), Gregory Gale (costumes), Tom Watson (hair and wigs), and Angelina Avallone (make-up) recapture the trashy glitz and decadence of the Sunset Strip and rock genre, from the neon signs and sleazy club rooms to the long hair, black eyeliner and nail polish of the rockers and the scanty thongs, bras, and breakaway attire of the strippers. And Kelly Devine (choreography) provides the animated fist-pumping, rolling around, jumping up and down, and dirty dancing for the assorted characters and their featured numbers (mostly presented as lively referential snippets, not full-length versions, of such iconic songs as “Cum On Feel the Noize,” “We Built This City,” “Sister Christian,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” “I Wanna Know What Love Is,” “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and many more).

Without exception, the high-energy cast, under the direction of Kristin Hanggi (a Tony nominee for the 2009 Broadway production), and high-decibel live band (Jacob Yates on keyboard, Aurelien Budynek and Tommy Kessler on guitar, Winston Roye on bass, and Jon Weber on drums, with music direction by Yates and arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp) absolutely nail the satirical “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll” characterizations and moves, the powerhouse music and vocals, and the personal interactions with the audience, encouraging fans to clap, to yell, and to sing along. And they do, in the spirit of a true rock concert.

CJ Eldred and Kirsten Scott. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

CJ Eldred as Drew and Kirsten Scott as Sherrie bring their strong emotive voices to their impressive solos and harmonious duets, and deliver the innocence, disappointments, and dreams of the young transplants to the Strip, along with their sentimental feelings for each other. P.J. Griffith has the looks, sound, and presence of a decadent rocker in his sidesplitting portrayal of Stacee Jaxx, whose overblown ego and illicit liaisons – on stage, in a live-feed video, and staggering through the audience – not only cause trouble for Sherrie and Drew, but also for himself. And the llama. Mitchell Jarvis returns from the original Broadway cast as the narrator Lonny (though the excellent Justin Colombo filled in at the press date I attended, masterfully driving the storyline and its farcical structure with his character’s unbridled behavior and dialogue).

Supporting the main characters are Matt Ban as the Bourbon Room’s proprietor Dennis, who offers “Nothin’ but a Good Time” to his patrons; Jeannette Bayardelle, turning in blockbuster vocals in her role as ‘Mama’ to the strippers; Mekhai Lee as the happily corrupt mayor; Tom Galantich as the conservative German investor Hertz and Dane Biren as his flamboyant son Franz; Katie Webber as the hot and nameless Waitress #1; and Tiffany Engen as the nerdy but devoted neighborhood activist Regina (pronounced with long Ī – and you know what that rhymes with). Each one embraces the madcap premise of the show and performs it with full-out gusto.

The Off-Broadway revival of Rock of Ages is as ridiculous and ebullient as it ever was, with a colorful design, an uproarious cast, and a rib-poking revisiting of the taste (or lack thereof) of the ‘80s. It’s loud, lewd, and lots of laughs, so if you’re in the mood for something “lame” and “sorta gross” (in the words of Sherrie), get ready to rock!

Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, including an intermission.

Rock of Ages plays an open-ended run at New World Stages – 340 West 50th Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.


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