By John Quinn, Encore Michigan
Do you miss the ’80s? I missed the ’80s. By the second term of the Reagan Administration, I was already paying a mortgage, which left little time or money for concerts, clubs and albums. If I thought the decade was as much fun as the Fisher Theatre’s current guest, “Rock of Ages,” I would have paid more attention.
While resembling other rock-inspired musicals, “Rock of Ages” is one of kind – and a bit of a paradox — as it continues through February 26 at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit.
“Hair” and “American Idiot” take themselves seriously. “Ages” is more like “Grease” – an irreverent, nostalgic romp. While proclaiming the glory of a counter-culture, it sticks rigidly to some of the oldest conventions of stage and film. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl before intermission, boy gets girl again before rousing final number. “Where have we seen this before?” he asks rhetorically. Yet “Rock of Ages” dispenses with another convention, the “fourth wall” – the unseen barrier between actor and audience. The characters are fully aware they’re in a play and go to Brechtian lengths to remind us of the fact.
The ’80s were a time of excess – big hair, big lapels and big spenders. As rock music shattered into multiple sub-genres, the most excessive was “glam,” notable for overt sexuality, androgynous makeup, hair and outrageous costumes. But there was always a pre-packaged, commercial edge that made the music seem as sincere as J. R. Ewing’s smile. That’s the charm of “Rock of Ages.” Playwright Chris D’Arienzo and orchestral arrangers David Gibbs and Ethan Popp had a great time thrashing music that was – well – trash to begin with. But in this context, the hits of Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Pat Benatar, Whitesnake and the like sound so much – better.
It’s 1987 on LA’s seedy Sunset Strip. Kids from all over are drawn by California dreamin’ to seek fame and fortune. Aspiring rocker Drew Boley (Dominique Scott) is bar back at the Bourbon Room, bar and music club. When newly-arrived Kansas girl – and movie star to be – Sherrie Christian (Shannon Mullen) show up at the bar it’s love at first sight for Drew. He convinces his boss, Dennis, (Matt Ban) to hire her.
The impending break-up of Arsenal, a band that got its start at the Bourbon Room, is returning for a final performance. Lead singer Stacee Jaxx (Matt Nolan), whose lion-like mane hides the morals of a tom cat, seduces Sherrie, and then insists she be fired. Drew’s performance as opening act leads to a record contract, but he feels betrayed by Sherrie.
Meanwhile, heartless German real estate developer Hertz (Philip Peterson) and his son Frantz (Stephen Michael Kane) are in the process of buying up the Strip to demolish it, replacing “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” with “clean living.” Their quick-fix urban renewal is opposed by Regina (Katie Postotnik), ex-city bureaucrat and current firebrand. Will our lovers re-unite? Will the club be saved from the wrecking ball? If you really can’t guess, here’s a hint: This is a comedy.
We’ve come to expect top-quality artists in this touring season, and “Rock of Ages” is no exception. Scott and Mullen are endearing ingenues, and Scott’s powerful tenor improves the score. What is more satisfying is how deep the talent runs in this cast. Matt Ban’s first appearance as Dennis was like deja vu all over again. I think I knew a “Dennis” – an aging hippie two decades out of date. Not only does Ban have the character nailed, costumer Gregory Gale has even provided the iconic fringed, buckskin vest. Amma Osei appears in the minor role of Justice, owner of a local strip joint. Her imposing presence and unearthly vocal control are scene-stealers.
If there’s one performance that stands above the rest, it’s Justin Columbo’s Lonny, our narrator and the character that’s most fully aware that this is only a play. He’s enthusiastic and energetic and wildly entertaining.
I’ve been a little hard on the music of the era, and the splendid rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” that serves as the finale could actually change my mind. You know the song:
Just a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit; He took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.
South Detroit: Wouldn’t that be Windsor, Ontario? I’m just sayin’.
John Quinn reviews local theater productions for http://www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.