Friday, January 27, 2017

Wild, Wild, Wild: Rock of Ages Revisits the Reagan Era

Posted By on Fri, Jan 27, 2017 at 1:38 PM

click to enlarge Just a small town girl... - MCDONALD/SIMMERS
  • McDonald/Simmers
  • Just a small town girl...
It’s confession time. I haven’t been a fan of 80’s top-40 music since way back in the 80’s when my high school class wanted to make the sappy Phil Collins hit “Against All Odds,” the song we marched into at graduation. Unironically. So, it should come as no surprise, of all the jukebox musicals out there — good, bad, and terrible — I’ve always had the hardest time giving Rock of Ages a fair shake. It’s like somebody went out of their way to pick all the music I rebelled against and force-fit it into a thinly plotted romantic comedy set in the sleazy, testosterone-flooded hair metal scene of LA’s Sunset Strip. The first viewing I endured like torture, and swore it would be the last. The show’s campy edge couldn’t shake off the slime, and the few songs I do legitimately enjoy (Motering...) couldn’t escape the horrible gravity of Starship’s “We Built This City,” which, I think we can all agree, is at least a least a semi-finalist in the worst song in history contest. So imagine my surprise when I found myself (mostly) enjoying Playhouse on the Square’s energetic homage to the Reagan era, when everything was awful.

The story goes something like this: The economy is wrecked, city cores are crumbling, but it’s morning in America so foreign investors are snapping up property and transforming local flavor into upscale homogeneity. Into the scene walks Sherrie, a young girl from the heartland, in painted on cut-off 
click to enlarge Born, raised in S. Detroit. - MCDONALD/SIMMERS
  • McDonald/Simmers
  • Born, raised in S. Detroit.
jeans, dreaming of work on the silver screen, even while she works the pole in a gentleman’s club. A 5-minute stand with a burnout rockstar in the men’s room of the Bourbon Room (a stand-in for the Whiskey-a-Go-Go) has wrecked her chances for real love, and brought her to a place she never thought she’d be. Now she’s holding out for a hero.

In this case, the real bad guy isn’t the asshole rock star — a cross between David Lee Roth of Van Halen and Axl Rose. We recognize him from first meeting, as someone spiraling toward oblivion and probably a toilet filled with his own vomit. The villain is a German real estate speculator with no compunctions about bulldozing rock clubs and putting up a retail shopping destination. The hero is busboy and would-be metal god, Drew Boley, who only wants to rock. And maybe sip some wine coolers with a nice girl now and then.

Scott Ferguson is a favorite among directors. I like how he stuffs scenes to their bursting point with life, color, and texture, although sometimes storylines get swallowed up in all the fun. This go-round, he keeps the action up front, and the conflicts clear while working with choreographer Travis Bradley to build body shots, stage dives, and lots of windblown hair into the production numbers.  Even the muddled second act races along like a crazy train, always threatening to slip off the rails.

There’s always been a little teeny-tiny hint of Threepenny Opera in Rock of Ages, and Ferguson, and a rock solid ensemble, find grace and meaning in LA’s slimy underbelly. Maybe even a hard life lesson or two.

Kathryn Kilger is a fine fit for Sherrie, the good girl in a bad situation, and Chris Steinmetz is appropriately cringe-inducing as Stacee Jaxx, a pretty, petty boozed up sack of garbage in too-tight pants. Isaac Middleton sometimes struggles with the range and brute force the songs require, but he overcomes all obstacles including the character’s own piggish instincts. He makes you love him, and makes the music work.

The glue holding everything together, however, is Stephen Garrett, who’s back on stage in Memphis after a brief hiatus. It is a welcome and auspicious return. Garrett specializes in emotionally detached smart guys, smartasses, and smarmsters with hearts of gold. This go-round he’s Lonny, a rock-and-roll lifer, living for the city and the scene: A little bit middle aged Jim Morrison, a little bit roadie for Spinal Tap. But the way he leads both the audience, and his fellow characters through the show is more like stoner Bugs Bunny leading Elmer Fudd on a wild rabbit chase. You just know somebody’s gonna get a big ol’ kiss. It may be my favorite musical performance by Garrett since he Christian rocked the house in the band satire Alter Boyz.

If there's anything I dislike more than Hair Metal it's Huey Lewis & the New's Sports LP. But if there is a Heart of Rock & Roll it's Jarrad Baker as the Bourbon's true believing owner, trying to hold on to that feeling and everything else that matters, even if he can't hold on to his club. Jonathan Christian turns in a strong supporting performance as Hertz, the teutonic moneyman, as does dancing machine Daniel Stuart Nelson who channels the spirit of Klaus Nomi as Hertz’s son Franz. Brooke Papritz mugs a little too much in her role as a cartoon activist, but also displays comic instincts reminiscent of Laugh In-era Ruth Buzzi.

Annie Freres has a voice that can’t be ignored, and her too-brief moments on stage are worth the ticket price. "Shadows of the Night," could have gone on much, much longer.

I’m never going to be a Journey fan. Or a Bon Jovi fan. Or all that into Quiet Riot. But if every production of Rock of Ages was as full and fun as this one, I could warm up to it pretty quickly — Against all Odds.
click to enlarge Anywhere
  • Anywhere
Apologies: Brooke Papritz was originally misidentified because somebody clearly can't read a program. (Me)

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