You can’t be too hard on a musical as self-aware as “Rock of Ages.” This is a show that – by its own admission – is defined by the likes of Whitesnake songs and poop jokes. So explains Lonny the narrator in a fourth wall-demolishing examination of his thwarted ambitions as a serious actor. One look at the show’s score – Foreigner, Twisted Sister, REO Speedwagon – and you know you’re dealing with music defined as much by the musicians’ hair as by their ability to hold a note. Book writer Chris D’Arienzo clearly understands that as Journey is to Mozart sonatas, so is “ROA” dialogue to Shakespearean sonnets.
‘Rock of Ages’ ★★ When: Through April 28 Where: Nederlander Theatre, 24. W. Randolph Tickets: $20 – $85 Info: BroadwayinChicago.com Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
What the songs of Poison, Quarterflash, Bon Jovi, et al, lack in complexity, they make up for in sheer catchiness. Starting “We’re Not Gonna Take It” with the same six notes as “O Come, All Ye Faithful”? Genius. That’s a song you’ll never forget. Moreover, “ROA” has always had a charm instilled within its unapologetic embrace of low-brow jokes, three-chord rock and roll, and leopard-print unitards.
But the charm is largely gone from the 10th anniversary tour now making a stop at the Nederlander Theatre. Worse, director Martha Banta’s non-Equity cast often sacrifices pitch for volume and endurance. For a show that’s first and foremost about music, that’s totally not copacetic. Even at their loudest, the vocals and the instrumentals (conductor/pianist Marshall Goodman-Keating, drummer Chris Moore, bassist Oliver Hofer and guitarists Zach “AttAkk” Hennig and Michael Maddox) are garbled under Cody Spencer’s sound design. And Janet Rothermel’s show choir choreography does not improve matters.
The show’s late/mid-1980s plot is oddly timely for Chicago: think Lincoln Yards development. In addition to the wine cooler-fueled romance between aspiring rocker Drew (Anthony Nuccio) and Sherri (Katie LaMark), “ROA” pits gentrifiers of the grimy-fabulous Sunset Strip (goodbye hard-rocking Bourbon Room, hello Foot Locker superstore) against a rowdy crew determined to save their city from evil corporate overlords. Alas, the satire embedded in “ROA” is inextricably woven into the score, and without a sound delivery of the music, it is, simply put: Lost.
As Drew, Nuccio has intensity, but lacks technique. When he goes all-out on the likes of “I Wanna Rock,” it’s the sound of vocal cord damage being born. As Sherri, LaMark puts her lovely, clarion tone through the kind of gymnastics that make sopranos sound like heavy smokers.
Sam Harvey is hilarious as superstar rocker Stacee Jaxx, but director Banta majorly misses the mark with his entrance. The first time we see him, he’s in flagrante delicto with multiple partners, the embodiment of greed-is-good, ‘80s excess. Instead of God of Hedonism at Chateau Marmont, Jaxx is Sad Stan of Suburbia at a Reno peep show.
Which brings us to the show’s overall “hairography,” the importance of which cannot be overstated. Yes, 1980s hair was ridiculous, but it did not look like it came from a 3-for-1 Halloween Superstore clearance bin.
There are flashes of humor. As Lonny, John-Michael Breen works the Fogmaster 5,000 with the grace and intimacy of a beloved dance partner. As aspiring candy store owner Franz and a veteran protester Regina, Chris Renalds and Kristina Walz go full-shablam with “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” knocking the number out of the park. In Renalds’ groin-stretching death-drops, you can see the raucous joy that should infuse the whole show.
At the very least, it’s not too much to expect that somebody could have at least sprung for quality mullets.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.