Much as one might try to romanticize the 1980s, even in the ironic way that would become characteristic of the decade that followed, the period offers some pretty slim pickings when it comes to lasting merits. Whether it was popular music, fashion, politics, art, economics, what have you, the leitmotif was a brazen lack of taste coupled with an indiscriminate disregard not just for authority but the rest of humankind.
It was a decade defined by, in a word, shamelessness in nearly every respect. Though barely into my teens at the time, I can still recall the collective sigh of relief that came when the ball dropped on 1990, allowing us to brush the preceding ten years under memory’s carpet and spare ourselves the wince of acute embarrassment. The current fetishization of Ronald Reagan, the light pastel palette that’s crept back into clothing and even iOS, and the side-shave unisex coifs now seen on dedicated followers of fashion are all sad indicators that the embarrassment wasn’t nearly acute enough.
Rock of Ages, a musical that’s now been around for as long as we were forced to endure the Eighties, is a suitably egregious parody of an egregious decade. As narrator Lonny Barnett describes it in one of the show’s many meta exchanges, it can be reduced to a collection of “poop jokes and Whitesnake songs”. And not only do the audience remain in their seats after this candid and unflattering admission, they belly laugh at their own complicity.
And therein lies its charm. In mining some of the worst qualities of its decade, Rock of Ages actually transcends the worst qualities of its genre. It stamps out the usual cloying superficiality of jukebox musicals with a smirk, as though grinding the smoldering butt of a Camel under the heel of a steel-toed cowboy boot. If you’ve sat through a production like Jersey Boys and wept at its brightly lit bread-and-circus inanity, Rock of Ages is at least refreshingly self-aware enough to mock the frail man operating behind its own curtain.
In this season opener and West Coast premiere at The Modern Coeur d’Alene, Brendan Brady (Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Spring Awakening) is Drew Boley, a wannabe rockstar working as a very unglamorous factotum in The Bourbon Room, a past-its-prime dive bar on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip owned by equally past-his-prime Dennis Dupree (Doug Dawson). When German developers Hertz and Franz (Shawn Hunt, Nick Bailey) propose demolishing the entire strip to construct a paean to cleanliness and efficiency, Drew gets his chance to prove his mettle—or rather, metal—to label scouts as well as ingenue Sherrie Christian (Quinn Vaira) when he’s allowed to open for Stacee Jaxx (Christopher Sweet), frontman for the popular band Arsenal, at a club-saving benefit concert. Starstruck by Stacee and fed up with Drew’s lack of overtures, Sherrie makes some naive yet libertine moves that land her in a “gentleman’s club” owned by Justice Charlier (Jesi Be). In act two, this all has to get resolved using some ex machina plot devices that aren’t too far removed from Wayne’s World (1992).
Lonny, played here with seedy, mullet-sporting swagger by Daniel McKeever (God of Carnage, The Producers), keeps the events moving at a steady clip by verbally bridging a handful of abrupt leaps in location and time. The music, which features classic earworms by Twisted Sister, Starship, Poison, Mr. Big, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Europe, Journey and, yes, Whitesnake, is interwoven diegetically, so that the songs rarely feel like they’ve been clumsily bolted on to an existing framework. As a matter of fact, Rock of Ages works more like a connect-the-dots exercise in which the plot is a line drawn between the hits’ natural and inevitable waypoints.
There are a couple of medleys (e.g., “More Than Words/To Be with You/Heaven”) plus gender swaps between the original vocals and the show’s renditions for the sake of variety as well as plot; for the most part, the songs get straightforward treatment by the four-piece band under Zack Baker, with enough power chords and two-hand tapping to appease casual metalheads. One of the few disappointments is that some of the songs lose their bite in translation. The anthemic “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as sung by Regina (Aubree Peterson) lacks Dee Snider’s growl and comes across as glibly feisty rather than fierce. In Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” the run-up to the chorus should build with the pounding of the toms and unleash its wallop the moment the rhythm guitar chugs along with “Motorin'”. That mini-catharsis is what makes the song. Here it’s more like a quaint group singalong.
Angela Pierson’s choreography suits the period, with plenty of shoulder thrusts, rounded fishnet leg kicks and fist pumps, not to mention slinky intimate numbers that come as close to softcore as you’ll see on a local stage. In fittingly girl-on-a-sportscar-hood fashion, Vaira writhes her way through the bulk of these in a bra top and denim miniskirt without a trace of awkwardness. It’s a far cry from her previous gig with VeggieTales. She brings that same unself-consciousness to her relationship with Drew for one of the most credible stage romances I’ve seen — all the more remarkable given Lonny’s knowing nods to the audience that it’s all a cheap dramatic contrivance.
Vaira is a standout among standouts. The primary casting in this production of Rock of Ages is as close to flawless as you can get, with Sweet, Dawson and McKeever playing parts to which they’re physically and vocally suited with uncanny accuracy. Brady has generally excelled in roles that use his fair-haired boyishness to accentuate his character’s struggle to be taken seriously, and that’s the case here too. The only caveat is that he and Vaira, both pale blondes with an air of guilelessness, can occasionally take on a brother-sister dynamic that threatens their otherwise persuasive stage romance.
Overseen by director George Green, this production is as cocksure, crass, tacky, hedonistic, and indeed as shameless as the decade from which it takes its inspiration. It’s a limited and not altogether desirable repertoire of attributes, but Rock of Ages pulls no punches about precisely what it is, and it’s a heckuva lot of fun as long as you’re prepared to embrace it on those terms. On a related note, it seems necessary to mention that the show’s frivolity shouldn’t be mistaken for cheesy, kid-friendly fare. There are enough f-bombs and implied fellatio that parents should think twice about bringing pre-teens.
Rock of Ages plays at The Modern Theater Coeur d’Alene until October 10, 2015.