Rock of Ages: Review

Rock of Ages, the hit Broadway musical about true love, bad 80s music and even badder hair, has finally arrived in Australia at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre. While this may not be Shakepseare, Rock of Ages does provide for a fun night out at the theatre and plenty of great 80s tunes to sing along to.

Rock of Ages opened exactly two years ago on Broadway at the 1,00-seat Brooks Atkinson Theatre, until recently downsizing to the 600-seat Helen Hayes Theatre. Nominated for five Tony Awards in 2009, including one for Best Musical, Rock of Ages didn’t win any of them.

While the show will likely appeal to a wide demographic, two factors stand true with this musical – recognition and experience. If you don’t recognise enough of the songs in the show, you’ll be struggling to enjoy it. Similarly, two hours of Rock of Ages on stage will be a much better event if you have lived through these songs and experienced them first hand. While some of today’s teenagers may be drawn to Rock of Ages thanks to the oversupply of 80s tunes on the ever-so-popular TV show Glee, it will be a bit like a 17 year-old attending an Eagles concert with his 50-year old father – two different experiences happening at the same time.

But a word of warning: Rock of Ages is also not a suitable show for the teens. A bit of pot smoking and foul language was pale in comparison to some of the “costumes” worn by the “ladies” and their gyrating moves. About a third of this show is set in an L.A. strip club with some pretty sleazy choreography, so I’d think twice about taking the kids to this one.

The strongest aspect of Rock of Ages was definitely the songs. While not exactly a greatest hits of the 80s (even die hard 80s music fans will struggle to recognise all of the songs in the show), it was nevertheless an impressive list of hits from the era of bad taste and bad music. The show has everything from the heavy rock of Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It and Quiet Riot’s Cum On Feel the Noize to the soft power ballads of Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is and Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn. When a musical like this finishes with the cast dancing to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, you know you’ve had a rockin’ good time. The Rock of Ages band, Arsenal, was nothing short of superb. Tzan Niko’s electric guitar solos were so hot, they were sizzling.

Rock of Ages is like MTV on stage. I recall the dawn of MTV in Australia, at least. Six years late, it arrived in 1987 on Friday and Saturday nights with Channel 9 Australia’s Richard Wilkins hosting a truncated version of the 24-hour show from America. Here was Whitesnake, Foreigner, Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon in all their bad 80s glory beamed right into my living room. So obsessed was I with MTV, my father today still tells a joke about how he was certain I passed a degree in music television in the 80s, instead of the university drama education degree I was officially enrolled in at the time!

The weakest aspect of Rock of Ages was the plot. In a word, lame. While no one expects a Pulitzer Prize-winning story line, this show is a jukebox musical in its purest form. The story of Drew (Justin Burford) and Sherrie (Amy Lehpamer) who fall in love against all odds (like the 80s reference?) even has subplots(!), but they are all so predictable you’ll see them coming a mile away. In true Mamma Mia! style, the plot advances in Rock of Ages are merely vehicles for the next big 80s tune to arrive. While some will love it, this is the very thing Broadway has been criticised for … creating jukebox musicals thin on plot with a succession of hit songs that make the experience more akin to a concert than musical theatre.

The acting was more than passable, with some of the characters so cheesy and caricatured your belly will hurt from the laughing. The show’s overweight, chain-smoking narrator, Lonny (Brent Hill), is hilarious from start to finish. Justin Burford (ex member of Perth band The Sleepy Jackson and current member of End of Fashion) is well casted in the male lead of Drew, with a killer voice for all the great 80s tunes his character sings in the show.

Amy Lehpamer reminded me so much of Christie Whelan, the current lead in the Australian version of Xanadu The Musical, both in terms of appearance and characterisation. Are these ladies twins? Must be the long legs, long blonde hair and deliberate “blonde” acting in their respective roles that striked so many similarities for me. Lehpamer’s voice was very good and she performed a convincing portrayal of Sherrie as the female lead.

The other notable mention in the show was Michael Falzon. As rocker Stacee Jaxx, he steals all the girls hearts with his long curly hair and “charming” personality. Falzon showed a good sense of comic acting and a fantastic voice that had most of the women in the audience ignoring their partners in the next seat, let me tell ya!

Also there to look forward to was the customary 80s mullet, shocking big hair from the ladies (trendy at the time!) and bad 80s costumes (and by “bad” I mean 80s “bad”, as in “good”!). This was a solid ensemble for the Australian production of a successful Broadway musical. While it’s not the greatest show on earth, Rock of Ages was definitely an enjoyable romp back to an era where the music really wasn’t that bad at all.

In the works is an upcoming movie version of Rock of Ages, reportedly starring Tom Cruise, Russell Brand, Mary J Blige and Alec Baldwin.

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