by Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
The Bourbon Room is rocking the Sunset Strip in the mid-to-late 80s, and Lonny (Nick Druzbanski), our fearless narrator, wants to tell you all about excitement in and out of the club in the hit musical “Rock of Ages.”
Lonny not-so-subtly explains everything we need to know about the popular rock venue, it’s owner, Dennis Dupree (Gene Weygandt), the greedy German entrepreneurs, Hertz Klinemann (Jeffrey Howell) and his son Franz Klinemann (Nathan Salstone), who are buying up blocks of the Strip to gentrify the neighborhood, and the young woman, Regina – rhymes with vagina (Tiffany Tatreau) – who is trying to stop them.
Lonny also introduces us to the main story; a love triangle (two-parts love, one-part lust) between our hero, Drew (Justin Matthew Sargent), a sweet, young girl from Kansas, Sherrie (Tess Soltau), and famed Arsenal lead singer Stacee Jaxx (American Idol’s Ace Young).
Drew wants to rock but he’s stuck behind the scenes cleaning up the club, emptying bags of garbage and plunging toilets. No job is too gross for Drew, because scatological comedy is king in this musical, but he’d rather be the lead singer in a big 80s hair band than clean vomit out of the men’s room. Who wouldn’t?
Our hero meets Sherrie just as she arrives in town –straight off the bus from some unnamed town in Kansas. Drew gets her a job at the Bourbon Room and the two continue to flirt, but Drew accidentally locks himself in the Friend Zone.
Meanwhile, Dennis Dupree, the Bourbon Room owner and operator, wants to have one last big blow out concert before they have to close up shop for good thanks to the aforementioned schemers, Klinemann and Klinemann. He convinces the hit rock band Arsenal to play one last gig in the club. The pompous Arsenal lead singer Stacee Jaxx agrees. When Jaxx arrives, he immediately puts the moves on Sherrie, and the three individuals converge, creating said love triangle. It’s your typical “Boy meets girl, Boy loses girl to famous rock star, Boy tries to win her back” story.
When Sherrie is unceremoniously fired because Sherrie gives Jaxx “bad vibes,” she runs into Mama (Aurelia Williams) the lesbianic prison matron who – wait! That’s “Chicago” – she runs into Justice the lesbianic owner of the Venus Club, who gets Sherrie up on the pole, dancing for her money. Ironically, Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” feels like the only rock ballad that DIDN’T turn up in the final cut of the show.
“Rock of Ages” is, yet again, another musical that weaves its plot around its songs – instead of the other way around. Some of those songs work and some are just jammed in there (a father sings a love ballad to his son and it feels super awkward). Bad puns go flying, some of them land with a thud. A vast majority of the comedic lines are merely groaners, but the superior cast kept “Rock of Ages” from being Schlock of Ages.
Young is charismatic as the charming but smarmy Jaxx. He lights up the stage, even when prancing around on a plush stuffed llama.
Sargent is perfectly cast as a fresh-faced Drew. He seems too earnest to be a rock star, and without spoiling the plot… probably is. He’s a good guy looking for a good girl and both he and Soltau are convincing.
By the way, Soltau can sing. She sings her way into Drew’s heart – and into the hearts of the audience. She also gets in a good comedic moment or two, particularly during a picnic high on Mullholland Drive – overlooking the Los Angeles cityscape.
Weygandt’s performance is reminscent of Bill Nighy in “Love Actually,” only less famous. He’s terrific.
Williams is a powerhouse. Even though there were some faulty microphones on opening night, it didn’t matter to Williams as she belted out the tunes. It was a grand performance.
Howell and Salstone are burdened with ridiculous German accents, but the duo makes the best of it. Howell chews the scenery. He’s the central villain in the story, but you can tell he’s loving every minute of it. Salstone steals the show with a rendition of “Hit Me with your Best Shot.” It’s, hands down, the most fantastic moment in the show (this critic is a big Pat Benatar fan).
Beowulf Boritt’s set design is spectacular and Gregory Gale’s original costumes are amazing. The show is popping with bright colors and bold patterns. The show is a huge spectacle with great live music provided by band members Robert Neumeyer, Dan Peters, John Anthony, Paul Thompson and RJ Heid.
Playwright Chris D’Arienzo wrote a clunky musical, but if you love 80s hair bands, like Guns & Roses, Styx, and Twisted Sister, “Rock of Ages” will rock you. Hard. Just the way you like it.
“Rock of Ages” runs through July 28 at the Benedum Center, 7th Street and Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.