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REVIEW: "Rock of Ages" — The Bourbon Room, Los Angeles

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

Do you remember the glam-metal rock of the 1980s, when MTV was actually about music?

Well, it seems this rock has managed to hang on for dear life, literally over decades, crossing over to a brand new generation and wondrously breathing new life into the dregs of Journey, Bon Jovi and Styx, et al, transforming them into a resurgence of countercultural, iconic glam worship. That movement culminated in one of the hard rocking-est shows ever on Broadway only a few short years ago called, "Rock of Ages."

And now, Los Angeles, who's been ripe and ready for a regional reincarnation of this post-hip celebration of what creator Chris D'Arienzo calls "a sexier time" of big, big dreams, finally delivers the goods with home-turf charm as if '80s rock were invented right here. Come to think of it, much of it actually was.

That said, you are invited to journey with us back to this sexy Era of Big! — big bands, big egos, big guitar solos, and even bigger hair — in a new immersive production of the Broadway hit, “Rock of Ages,” Hollywood-style. The jukebox musical, with its rock ’n’ roll story of a small-town girl/city boy romance on the Sunset Strip, is now in its new home on Hollywood Boulevard, and takes place in a virtual, custom-built version of the show’s Bourbon Room, featuring rock hits from some of the hottest bands of that day.

Prepare to be dropped straight into the late 1980’s rock scene from the second it begins. It’s loud, flashy, energetic and tons of fun. Centering on a touching love story, it brings with it a classic hard core rocking score, a liberal slice of light-hearted comedy, and some of the best choreography in theatre. Part musical, part rock concert, "Rock of Ages" is a high-octane performance full of big numbers, big talent, and of course, that big hair.

Performed in an authentic dinner theater experience (yes, you can order dinner and drinks), the show is directed by Kristin Hanggi, choreographed by Kelly Devine with arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp. Music supervision is by David Gibbs. Since debuting on the Great White Way in 2009, this five-time Tony Award-nominated musical has spawned replica touring productions worldwide in Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom, among many other countries.

The set design team of Beowulf Boritt creates the dive bar in seedy detail; it's the closest thing to the original Bourbon Room you can get. So close, you can almost smell the barf in the men’s room. Posters of real and fictional bands adorn the walls of the theater. Cell phones are the size of bricks, and several of those old-fashioned, vintage art deco neon lights hum and flicker all through the smoky bar room set.

In the "theatre," Zachary Borovay handles projections, Jason Lyons expertly creates the perfect lighting ambiance, and Ben Soldate balances the sound creatively inside the performance room’s excellent acoustics. The show’s top-notch band is comprised of expert guitarists Pat Lukin and Maddox, bassist Greg Coates, drummer Kevin Kapler and keyboardist/music director Jonathan Quesenberry. The music is genuine, and as with most rock music back then, a lot of the lyrics are unintelligible.

Eva Maciek is in charge of an array of authentic costumes, and Tommy Kurtzman styles all hair and wigs - and with that kind of volume, has to be burning out blowdryers daily. Klint Flowers (make-up) recaptures the trashy glitz and decadence of the Sunset Strip and rock genre with a bounty of black eyeliner, nail polish, and lip gear.

Among most of the actors' reportoire of accessories are items like scanty thongs, leather pants, jeweled codpieces, chain extensions, shoulder pads and breakaway attire of the strippers.

But Kelly Devine’s choreography effectually 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 anthems and power ballads as “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “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” and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”

Presented in the format of a meta-theatrical narrative, the show is a hilarious romp full of sight gags and self-referencing humor, breaking through the fourth wall, as Lonny (Chuck Sakulla – Broadway: “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat;” “Aida”), our aloof wisecracking narrator and assistant manager of the Bourbon Room, recounts to the audience the history of the club and its hedonistic denizens. His story revolves around the struggle to save the beloved club (the most popular performance venue for upcoming rock bands) from the manipulated attempts of two scheming real estate developers of German descent who plan to tear down the bar.

We know they are scheming because their names are Hertz (Pat Towne - Skylight World Premier: "Bronco Billy;" Directing: "Frank Zappa's Joe's Garage") and Franz (Justin Ray - West Coast Prem:"The Three Musketeers;" Film: "False Hopes") and they speak with cartoonish accents. Mr. Ray’s Franz, in particular, with his happy, gay personality and innocent delivery of comical one liners had the audience in stitches every time he opened his mouth.

With the bar’s owner, Dennis (Tony Nominated Nick Cordero - "Bullets Over Broadway," Broadway: "Waitress," whose rock voice is satisfyingly gravelly), blissfully stoned out, it’s up to a city planner named Regina (Stephanie Renee Wall also playing Candi - Broadway: "Marilyn;" Regional: "South Pacific"), pronounced “ReGYna,” to stop them.

Dennis’ role was played in the 2012 movie, if you remember, by Alec Baldwin - at least, I think that was Alec Baldwin. Something gray and matted, tinged with Baldwinism, loped across the screen from time to time, but beyond that, it's hard to be precise.

Amidst that madness, we find aspiring rock star Drew (Ian Ward - Broadway: "Getting the Band Back Together;" "Radio City Christmas Spectacular") played with gnarly self-possession and longing to become the next big thing in music, and also longs for fresh-off-the-bus Sherrie (Callandra Olivia - Regional: "Bonnie & Clyde;" Netflix: "Girlboss"), a Kansas kid with stars in her eyes, who’s living in a lonely world and arriving in the celestial city of Los Angeles to become one of those stars.

She is hardly the first to make such a trip; think of Cherie, her near-namesake, played by Marilyn Monroe in “Bus Stop” (1956), who sang with a crack in her voice and a hole in her tights. Cherie, too, was heading west: “Hollywood and Vine!” she cried, hugging herself as if the dream could be held tight. At that moment, you knew she would never get there.

But Sherrie does get there. True, she has her suitcase stolen within minutes of arriving, but here’s the good news: she’s already met a guy! Not just any guy, either, but comely city boy Drew, born and raised in South Detroit even, and shares her plan to become a performing artist and, more significantly, her hair style.

Remember this is the 80's, and so all the young dudes of whatever gender appear to have risen at dawn and stood in front of a Force 10 gale for half an hour, to achieve sufficient sweep-back. So Drew, having found his soul mate while bonding over Slurpees, arranges for her to wait tables at the Bourbon Room there on the Sunset Strip.

But with an awkwardness of young love that later leads to misunderstandings, (doesn’t it always?), the plot is propelled in a number of directions in this one-step-forward-two-steps-back romance. Ms. Olivia plays the pure maiden Sherrie with a studied innocence and sincerity.

Sherrie just wants to know what love is and wants Drew to show her. Both of the young transplants bring impressive solos and harmonious duets full of resolve, disappointment and dreams to the Strip, in an effort to try and find their way in the very competitive music world.

But sooner than later, Drew, who once again just wants to rock, fumbles his approach and soon sees Sherrie in the arms of bad boy Stacee Jaxx, who is there to perform his last show with the group Arsenal, before they disband. When Drew finds out about their tryst, their relationship spirals into utter chaos. In short order, she loses her waitress job and finds new employment giving lap dances at a strip joint run by Justice (Regina Levert, who plays Charlier/Mother – KC Starlight: “Hairspray;” Moonlight: “Chicago”), and belting her heart out.

The amazing Nick Bernardi portrays the arrogant rocker Stacee Jaxx to a fault in burned-out, fading star fashion. Stacee, who specializes in abject objectification of his fan base, has some seriously funny moments in the show, and you can almost sympathize with him when he gets his deserved comeuppance at the end.

Without exception, the high-energy cast and high-decibel live band, under the guide of Director Hanggi, absolutely nails the satirical “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll” characterizations, along with displaying strong, powerhouse vocals. Ms. Wall’s hippy-dippy Regina is spot-on, and Mr. Towne and Mr. Ray are incredible as Hertz and Franz. In fact, all the lead characters are fantastic, and each has an adequate amount of limelight.

Lonny, who serves as a sort of narrator/menacing fool/creepy observer, shows up in one slightly lewd t-shirt after another. “Say hello to the person next to you. (Pause.) Not the one you’re with.” It’s a lead-in to “Livin in Paradise/Cum on Feel the Noize,” which cuts to an energetic ensemble of dancers who really kick it out, swirling upside down on poles using plungers as mic props. And if your heart still surrenders to “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” by REO Speedwagon, here it is afresh, reconstituted as a gay power ballad for Lonny and Dennis, who deliver it while gazing into each other’s rheumy orbs. Hmm.

Other supporting cast members are Stefan Raulston as the happily corrupt mayor; Zoe Unkovich as the hot and nameless Waitress #1; Matt Wolpe who alternately plays Lonnie; Sean Yves Lessard who alternately plays Stacee Jaxx; Chuck Saculla as Swing (in this show playing Lonnie); Frankie Grande who alternately plays Franz; Justin Ray as Ensemble/Joey Primo (in this show playing Franz); Marissa Matthews as Swing (in this show playing Groupie); Tiffany Mallari who alternately plays Groupie; Neka Zang as Ensemble/Constance (also Dance Captain). And so, it goes on and on and on and on.

But “Rock of Ages” lives up to its name and then some, and it will literally rock your world. The cast is sensational, bringing to life an era of crankin’ music, stunning vocals, and monstrous rock groups the likes we will never see again. He says… swaying, with lighter high in the air. In a show with an extraordinarily high level of entertainment, "Rock of Ages" is produced by Tinc Productions; The Bourbon Room is located at 6356 Hollywood Blvd., 2ndFloor, LA 90028. Running time is approximately 2 ½ hours including one 15 minute intermission. For online reservations and tickets:

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report



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