Rock of Ages
- Book by Chris D'Arienzo
- Directed by Kristin Hanggi
- At the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto
When I first started as a critic, I looked forward to writing about deep and thoughtful theatre. Instead, I'm reviewing a show with poop jokes and Whitesnake songs.
Okay, that's not my joke: I'm just paraphrasing Lonny (Aaron Walpole), the mullet-haired pervert who meta-theatrically narrates Rock of Ages, but who tells us he had greater acting ambitions than appearing in this ridiculous eighties jukebox musical having its Canadian premiere in Toronto courtesy of Mirvish Productions.
Uniformed in a "Hooray for Boobies" shirt, Lonny arrives on stage frequently between the hair-rock hits - from Whitesnake, yes, but also Survivor, Journey, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Poison and a dozen others - to undercut or apologize for the silliness he and the rest of the cast are spouting. As if anyone in the audience actually expected Rock of Ages to be on the level of Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man.
That's the kind of musical this is: It sets the bar very low and reaches it. This Canadian production, however, is not as much fun as it could be due to some less-than-ideal casting and occasionally muddled direction.
In a way, Rock of Ages dramatizes the lyrics of Journey's more ubiquitous than ever hit Don't Stop Believin'.
Aspiring actress Sherrie (Elicia MacKenzie, the Maria from Sound of Music) - "just a small town girl, livin' in a lonely world" - takes a midnight train to Los Angeles and immediately falls for aspiring rocker Drew (Yvan Pedneault from We Will Rock You), "just a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit," though in this production via Montreal, due to a "slightly noticeable French-Canadian accent."
Sherrie and Drew meet up at the Bourbon Room, a rock bar which is "just like paradise" (in the words of David Lee Roth) and run by Dennis (David W. Keeley) and his sound guy Lonny, our omniscient and flatulent narrator.
Their idyll is threatened by German developer Hertz (Victor A. Young) and his effeminate son Franz (the excellent Cody Scott Lancaster) who want to tear down the Sunset Strip and replace it with … well, it seems like some sort of light-rail transit corridor. Not a terrible idea, really, in traffic-clogged L.A., but you have to boo the villain you're dealt.
That capitalism should be portrayed as the enemy of rock in a musical spilling over with on-stage beer ads and product placements for a certain fast-food joint is the one irony left unacknowledged here. But, as Lonny would no doubt tell me, analysis is not worth the effort.
Fair enough, but my less philosophical issue with this production of Rock of Ages is that for all the non-stop, frenetic, frat-boy humour, I only laughed out loud a half dozen times. And I have no aversion to either poop jokes or Whitesnake. I was, however - full disclosure - sober throughout despite the option of ordering drinks to your seat.
Still, most of the blame falls on Walpole - a third-season, third-place Canadian Idol finalist - who frantically tries to channel Jack Black and Chris Farley as Lonny, but always ends up seeming like an imitation of funny. He mangles the opening scene, out of breath and only intermittently comprehensible as he introduces the characters and fails to set the tone.
It doesn't help that he is paired so often with Keeley, a consummate professional who may be playing a variation on Jeff Bridges's The Dude from The Big Lebowski, but plays it well, with heart and perfect timing. Along with Lancaster and Peter Deiwick as an oversexed eighties rocker named Stacee Jaxx, he saves the show.
An earnest, self-described tomboy who got the lead in the Sound of Music via a television talent show, MacKenzie dirties up well as Sherrie. She can conjure a great rock sound and is very sexy, but is always just a hair away from complete comfort with the choreography and Family Guy-style comedy. She also drags the show down by being too serious in the big numbers - a problem for which we should blame the director Kristin Hanggi, who does not achieve a consistent style from her performers.
As for Pedneault, he once again wanders around looking slightly stoned and then blows you away whenever a song comes along. His natural comic timing and nuclear-powered voice mostly make up for the emotionless acting.
For 1980s nostalgics, Rock of Ages is no doubt a visual treat, from Gregory Gale's rad costumes to set designer Beowulf Boritt's well-curated collection of vintage Slurpee cups and wine coolers. And wig designer Tom Watson deserves a head-bang of gratitude for the humongous hoard of hair.
And while it would have been nice to sneak a little Canadian eighties rock - April Wine? Loverboy? Perhaps Sheriff's When I'm with You? - into the mix alongside the photoshopped pictures of Brian Mulroney and Bryan Adams, the music is enjoyable, the on-stage band rockin'. The whole thing might even be good fun if Walpole's constant winking at the audience didn't look so much like a nervous tic.