The Arts Club Theatre’s Rock of Ages makes a great summer season presentation at the Granville Island Stage. The music is loud and “in your face”, the cast is both enthusiastic and talented and the plot doesn’t interfere with a few jokes and a good time.
Rock of Ages was a big hit on Broadway, enjoying a six-year run and earning five Tony Award nominations.
Written by Chris D’Arienzo, Rock of Ages is directed by Peter Jorgensen, with music supervision by Sean Bayntun (also keyboardist and cast member) and is performed by a spirited cast.
The book is supposedly based on true story accounts of the drug-fueled excesses of 1980’s Los Angeles (and perhaps has been played with that emphasis elsewhere), but I found this Arts Club presentation more evocative of good times and fun than sexploitation and the dark side.
Set in late 1980’s LA (a fictional Sunset Boulevard club the Bourbon Room), the plot is thin and clichéd and really only serves as a vehicle for presenting classic rock songs of the 80’s from singers and groups such as Bon Jovi, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister and Europe, all decked out in loud hair and clothes.
The drama centers around Drew (Kale Penny), a shy kid from Michigan who works as the janitor at legendary Sunset Strip club Bourbon Room, as he waits for his dream of music stardom to materialize. He falls in love with Sherrie (Marlie Collins), an aspiring actress from small-town Kansas, also in town with the hope of making it big.
A subsidiary plot concerns a greedy German real estate developer Hertz (Graham Coffeng) and his ineffectual son Franz (Paige Fraser) who want to raze the Bourbon Room — and the rest of the Strip — to rebuild it along more profitable lines.
Under threat of eviction, the club’s proprietor, Dennis (Kieran Martin Murphy), hatches a plan to rescue the club by hosting a farewell concert by fictional mega-band Arsenal, a group that got its start there. On the big night, Drew gets his break as the opening act, but also gets his heart broken when Stacee Jaxx (Robbie Towns), lead singer of Arsenal, hits on Sherrie.
The set, staging and lighting all serve to create the atmosphere and look of a night club with live acts. In effect the production is as much a rock concert as a play.
The six-man band is both in the background and on center stage. The actors are for the most part also musicians-three of the performers do double duty as band members.
The designers (costumes by Jessica Bayntun, sets by Marshall McMahen, lighting by Robert Sondergaard) do an excellent job of evoking the sights and sounds (but fortunately not the smells) of the Sunset Strip of the 1980’s.
The performances are a blend of conviction and parody. Kale Penny is an excellent choice to play the lead and conjures up a natural, laid-back stage presence; boy, does he have a great voice — pure and intense. Fortunately, Marlie Collins is also a strong stage presence with a voice that manages to hold its own with Mr. Penny’s.
The supporting players are just as terrific. Robbie Towns plays drug-dazed egomaniac Stacee Jaxx with the necessary sexual charisma, blasting out his big solo, Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead or Alive right to the back of the theater where we were seated.
Brett Harris’ hilarious performance as the evening’s narrator Lonny is one of show’s delights. He careens around the stage both adding comic commentary and plugging holes in the plot. A big hit with the audience is the duet performed by Mr. Harris and Kieran Martin Murphy on REO Speedwagon’s Can’t Fight This Feeling.
The performers in the secondary roles not mentioned above (Adriana Ravalli as the waitress, Lauren Bowler as Regina, Aadin Church as the mayor and Ja’Keith) definitely deserve acknowledgement as they’re all uniformly good.
While nobody’s talents for serious acting are overly challenged in Rock of Ages, comic chops and singing skills are critical components of the success of this production. And everyone without exception delivers.
During the show I attended, performers frequently directly addressed the audience, who in turn responded enthusiastically with rhythmic clapping and cheering. The almost-full house ended the evening with a standing ovation.
And although personally never a big fan of ’80’s music (except for Queen and Police), many of the songs (Don’t Stop Believing, Waiting for a Girl Like You, Wanted Dead or Alive, We Built This City, Hit Me With Your Best Shot), had me also singing along under my breath and clapping along with everyone else.
Rock of Ages continues at the Granville Island Stage through July 30. Photos by Emily Cooper.