If you suffer from nostalgia for the 1980s in any form — from the presidency of Ronald Reagan, to wine coolers, mix-tapes, fishnet tights, pole-dancing and heavy metal glam rock bands (along with all the grungy decadence that came with them), “Rock of Ages,” the eclectic jukebox musical, is the show for you.
‘ROCK OF AGES’
When: Through Oct. 15
Where: Drury Lane Theater, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Tickets: $45 – $60
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
To be sure, it is difficult to argue with the sheer propulsive energy and drive of the musical’s more than two dozen songs (including a few fine ballads), made famous by the likes of Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Twisted Sister, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Whitesnake, Steve Perry, Poison and Europe — arranged and orchestrated to a high frenzy by Ethan Popp and played to high-amped effect by the onstage band. And it is equally hard to find fault with the tear-down-the-walls production of the show now in its regional premiere at Drury Lane Theatre — if it’s your cup of poison.
But despite all its knowing self-mockery (magnified to a frequently cartoonish degree here by director Scott Weinstein, the force behind such superb recent productions as Griffin Theatre’s “Ragtime” and Theo Ubique’s “Rent”), this musical patchwork, with its comic book-like love story by Chris D’Arienzo, is alternately gross and moronic. And not even the massive assemblage of formidable vocal talent, and the larger-than-life personalities now gathered on the Drury Lane stage (where they dance up a storm by way of choreographer Stephanie Klemons), can disguise that fact. The show’s book also is not entirely honest, for despite all its profligate sex, the AIDS epidemic that defined much of the 1980s is oddly never even mentioned.
The story, set in 1987, is about the misfiring romance between two relative innocents caught up in the grind of the glam metal world — Drew Boley (a finely-tuned turn by Russell Mernagh), a shy, Detroit-bred wannabe singer-songwriter with low self-confidence, and Sherrie Christian (Cherry Torres, a fresh, clarion-voiced new talent to watch), a Kansas girl with strict parents and wild impulses who heads to Los Angeles to become an actress. They both work at menial jobs in The Bourbon Room, a fabled Sunset Boulevard club owned by Dennis Dupree (Gene Weygandt, just right as an aging hippie), and overseen by his assistant, Lonny (the irrepressible, high-octane-fueled Nick Druzbanski), who doubles as the show’s gregariously larger-than-life narrator. (Lonny also adds something of a “meta” quality to the storytelling, even acknowledging that the musical could use a good trim.)
Enter Hertz (George Keating), a neo-Nazi-like German entrepreneur hellbent on a lucrative, grunge-erasing urban renewal (or “removal”) project, and armed with enough cash to bribe the Mayor (John Edwards), despite the objections of his urban planning chief, Regina (Tiffany Tatreau). Regina will go on to lead a massive protest against the plan, proclaiming “We Built This City” (on rock music). She also will liberate Hertz’s son, Franz (Nick Cosgrove), who is tyrannized by his father. (The Nazi element comes out of nowhere, but probably has a bit more resonance at this moment than when the musical first arrived on Broadway in 2009.)
Also crucial to the story is the arrival of certified rock star Stacee Jaxx (a spot-on Adam Michaels), a piggish narcissist adored by every woman, including Cherrie, who, after losing patience with Drew’s “niceness” engages in degrading sex with Stacee in the club’s men’s room. (The scene is set, with full irony, to “I Want to Know What Love Is.”) Cherrie’s debasement by Stacee eventually leads her to work at a strip joint run by Justice (the ever power-voiced Donica Lynn), a more experienced woman who has made bad choices and developed a cynical profit-making attitude. The ensemble (Andrea Collier, Annie Joe Ermel, Michael Ferraro, Sharriese Hamilton, Colte Julian, Lindsay Prerost, and Sawyer Smith) dances up a storm.
The entire cast plays its roles to the hilt. But in the end, the screechy-screaminess of it all, along with the crotch grabbing, simulated humping and dumb humor, have a numbing effect.
Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set, enhanced by Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projections, Theresa Ham’s perfect costumes, Greg Hofmann’s lighting and Ray Nardelli’s sound are ideal for the era. But do you really want to return to that era?
Note: “Rock of Ages” is recommended for ages 13 and up.