“Rock of Ages” rocks the Pantages

“Rock of Ages” rocks the Pantages

The Sunset Strip in Hollywood was the epicenter of metal music in the ‘80’s.  Heavy Metal, Glam Metal, Hair Metal – whatever your flavor, the music had it’s roots in the clubs of Southern California.  In 2006, a show about the love, the dreams, and the excesses of the Sunset Strip club scene debuted in LA – “Rock of Ages”.  It opened off Broadway in 2008, then on Broadway in 2009 – scoring five Tony nominations, including Best Musical.  “Rock of Ages” is now on tour and last week, made it’s triumphant return to the city that gave it birth.

“Rock of Ages” is a delicious blend of hedonism and heart.  It does not shy away from the excesses or clichés of ‘80s metal, but it also understands the genesis and appeal of that music.  At its core, the music has always been about having fun; about being in, or falling out of, love.  The music was rarely intentional social commentary; rather it was commentary by virtue of its very existence.  It was uncomplicated.  Is that a naive view? Perhaps – but I lived those years and, in hindsight, my experience was one of fun first.  It’s the same experience you get from “Rock of Ages”.

The touring company of “Rock of Ages” stars Constantine Maroulis as Drew – the role he created both on and off Broadway.  Constantine burst onto the national scene in 2005 as a contestant on season four of “American Idol”.  While he ultimately finished 6th in the competition, he – along with Bo Bice – helped pave way for more rock oriented performers like Chris Daughtry and David Cook in the competition.

In the six years since he left “American Idol”, Constantine has continued to develop as a performer, as evidenced in the show.  Those who remember his time on the show will not be surprised at the way throws himself without abandon into such rock anthems as “I Wanna Rock” and “Cum On, Feel the Noise”.  His standout performance of “My Funny Valentine” on Idol gave a glimpse of the heart he could bring to a song; heart he uses to great effect on such power ballad classics as “Heaven” and “High Enough”.

What impresses me most about his performance is the depth and authenticity Constantine imbues into the character of Drew.  A boy living in LA, chasing a dream, Drew is both full of rock-n-roll swagger, and consumed with self-doubt.  As he falls for Sherrie (newly arrived from Kansas, with movie star dreams of her own), Drew struggles to express his feelings for her.  Constantine shows a vulnerability and shyness that rings achingly true.  For anyone who’s every struggled through the opening stanzas of falling in love or pursuing a dream no one else believes in, it is a performance that hits close to home.  Some of his best moments onstage come not when he’s front and center belting out anthems, but when he is showing us Drew searching to find his dream.  (Forced to wear an MC Hammer/Michael Jackson get-up by his manager at one point, he deadpans – “I don’t do epaulets”).  If the producers of the upcoming “Rock of Ages” movie do not cast Constantine in the role of Drew it would be – to quote a pair of 80’s cultural icons – “most heinous.”

Also in the touring company is MiG Ayesa, playing the part of rocker Stacee Jax, lead singer of the band Arsenal.  Like Constantine, MiG emerged onto the American music scene as a result of an appearance on TV reality competition.  In his case, the show was “Rockstar:INXS, where he finished third.  I spoke with MiG last week (you can read the interview here), and he told me he tried to bring a sense of likeability to Stacee – to compliment the character’s full-on rock star attitude.  I have to say, he nailed it on both counts.  MiG’s Stacee exudes the sense of confidence and entitlement you would expect to see from an out of control rock star.  (As soon as I saw him bouncing peanuts into his mouth off a stripper’s scantily clad posterior, I knew his performance was going to be something special).

At the same time, as Stacee’s career disintegrates before our eyes, you can see the confusion and disbelief that his pampered existence could ever come to an end.  In many ways, MiG brings a sense that Stacee is just a spoiled little boy somewhere deep down inside (a dysfunctional and clueless little boy with a thing for llama’s, but a boy nonetheless).  When Stacee comes under Lonny’s spell during the final number and makes peace with Drew – you believe it.  It doesn’t feel forced, and you find yourself liking him – just a little bit.

Overall, the touring company does a wonderful job with “Rock of Ages”.  Travis Walker’s performance as Franz is both funny and flamboyantly German.  His Richard Simmons inspired confrontation with his father provides one of the most crowd-pleasing highpoints of the performance.  Another standout is Teresa Stanley as Mother.  Not one of the focal characters in the show, she still plays a vital role in the development of Sherrie.  When Mother tells Sherrie about her past experiences in LA and opens the cast’s version of “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” – you can hear a pin drop.  Her voice is rich and smoky, and provides a mature counterpoint to the young love Drew and Sherrie are working their way through.

If I have any complaints about the show, I would offer two observations.  First, Nick Cordero as Dennis Dupree is one of the weaker singers in the show.  His characterization of Dennis is fine and his acting is enjoyable – but his singing is a barrier to truly connecting with the audience.  His growling delivery makes it tough to find the melody in many of his numbers, and detracts from his work with the ensemble.  In particular, Dennis’ duet with Lonny on “Can’t Fight This Feeling” lacks the emotional punch, and subsequent comedic impact I loved in the Broadway production. (You can read my review of the Broadway show here.)

My second observation revolves around the venue itself.  The Pantages is an impressive theater.  This was my first chance to attend a show there.  I was struck by the beauty and grandeur of the facility.  From the moment you walk into the lobby, the gilt golden and silver architecture speaks of the elegance of yesteryear’s Hollywood.  The auditorium is even more impressive and ornate, with intricate embellishments and dramatic lighting that make the ceiling itself a work of art.  And therein lies the problem.

“Rock of Ages” is a show with its roots in the clubs of the Sunset Strip.  Yes, the songs are arena anthems, but the stories live in the dark and dirty clubs.  Many of the theaters on Broadway are smaller and more intimate than you first expect.  The Pantages seats 2,691 patrons, while the Brooks Atkinson Theater where I saw the show in New York has seats for 1,069.  This puts the audience closer to the stage, and in many ways, closer to the story.

At the show I attended, there seemed to be both a literal and figurative gulf between the audience and the performers.  Even those on the floor sat back from the stage a bit – more observers than participants in the show.  There seemed to be reluctance on the part of the audience to let loose and enjoy the show.  On more than one occasion, Constantine had to exhort the crowd to clap along with the music.  Even the blazing rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing” at the end of the show failed to get most people on their feet.  On Broadway, the crowd was on its feet, clapping and singing along, before the notes of the first verse had even finished ricocheting around the rafters.

Those two observations aside, “Rock of Ages” is a phenomenal show.  It is the perfect Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup combination of rock-n-roll and theater goodness.  If you have the chance in Los Angeles, or New York, or at any of the stops left on the national tour – GO SEE IT.  It’s meant to be two and a half hours of unadulterated, hairspray fueled fun – so let it!  Don’t be afraid to sing along.  Don’t be afraid to raise a lighter in the air during the ballads.  Don’t be afraid to bang your head a little – even if you no longer have the flowing locks you enjoyed during your youth.  Don’t be afraid to cut loose, because – to paraphrase one Mr. Brett Michaels – its “nothing but a good time”.

Thank you!  Good night!

For information about “Rock of Ages”, or to purchase tickets to the show, check out www.rockofagesmusical.com.

© 2011, The Word Zombie. All rights reserved.

3 Replies to ““Rock of Ages” rocks the Pantages”

  1. I, too, am a huge fan of Rock Of Ages and couldn’t agree more with your assessment of Constantine and the very talented cast-though, in fairness to Nick, his surly-yet-loveable aging hippie role affords him little chance to show off his voice. Also, had I authored this review, I might have added a caveat to your readers warning of the musical’s addictive qualities.

    Having seen the musical in several theaters, I agree that the elegant Pantages may not provide the perfect setting for Rock Of Ages; the orchestra pit must cause a great deal of anxiety separation for the actors who are working hard to connect with the crowd every night.

    It’s also a bit problematic that many traditional theater-goers (like me) are not used to the participatory factor that this particular show appreciates and may be a bit reticent to join in the fun.

    My advice to them: let your hair down for the night (so to speak), buy a $2 LED lighter in the lobby for waving during your favorite songs, break out your best whistle of approval and sing along! This time it’s ok to join all those people around you who ARE feelin’ the noize and having nothin’ but a good time!

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I debated long and hard about how to address my concern with Nick and his portrayal of Dennis – and in the end decided to go with the initial gut reaction I had sitting in the theater. Both the original cast recording, and the ensemble I saw in New York put forth versions of Dennis that leaned more towards the melodic instead of the gruff. I’m sure Nick is a talented singer (he’s on tour with “Rock of Ages” for – it’s not like he just walked in off the street…). For me, it comes down to a matter of taste, and I didn’t respond as well to his interpretation of Dennis as some.

    Your advice to future theater goers is spot on. Go, and have a good time!!

Leave a Reply