Thursday 23 June 2016

Rock of Ages is satirical whimsy & song
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  "A singer, in a smoky room / The smell of wine and cheap perfume / Oh, the movie never ends / It goes on and on and on and on."  That lyric by rocker Steve Perry and his group Journey in their anthem "Don't Stop Believing'" summarizes succinctly what the 80's were all about in the glam-metal daze of rock-&-roll.  The genre was kick-started earlier on by Gene Simmons and KISS : hair shagging all over the place and candy-coated guitar licks. Run thru some 30 jukebox pop faves from that decade, tie them to a tried-&-true cheesy storyline about small-town girls and city boys who dream of L.A. stardom and classic WYSIWYG : the show Rock of Ages.

The set-up scenes :  It's the Sunset Strip. A grasping and overreaching German developer wants to tear down the iconic Bourbon Room that's been a sleazy but charming mainstay of rock bands and their groupie, gropey gangs of fans. Plot is the simplest of arcs. Boy meets girl. Boy, a bit dim, loses girl. Boy wins girl in the end. Along the way ACT's talented actor rockers cover a host of what at the time were overproduced glittery charts churned out by the likes of David Lee Roth (ex-of Van Halen), Styx, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, Foreigner, Survivor et al. The hippie epoch from 15-20 years earlier was said to be all about sex, drugs & rock-&-roll. No match whatever -- us from back back back in that day -- compared to the Sunset Strip scene during the time of Ronnie Reagan. A time when sexploitation & snorting & mainlining were daily street staples, not sneaked. Reagan promoted a "Grab what you can!" social ethos in business and government that young people found attractive. On their own terms. On the street. In the clubs.

How it's all put together :  Rock of Ages is a snatch-back to MTV's zenith. Life stories told with all the depth that 3 1/2 minutes of technicolor and surround-sound can produce. This show is stitched together with a narrator named Lonny (Brett Harris) who winks and teases the crowd beyond the fourth wall mercilessly and mirthfully. His Brit accent is both spot-on and superb. Busboy at the Bourbon Room is Drew (Kale Penny), a wannabe rocker. He is smitten by wannabe actress Sherrie Christian (Marlie Collins) from Kansas, where Alice & Toto also come from. 

Along comes local metal kingpin and chief debaucher named -- wait for it -- Stacee Jaxx (Robbie Towns). He seduces and promptly dumps Sherrie. Meanwhile a protest-a-thon is being mounted to save the Strip from morphing into just another strip mall with Foot Locker as its anchor tenant. Sherrie slides into a period of personal disorder and clutter : she becomes a lap-dancer at the nearby Venus Club. Until Drew draws out the better angel everybody just knew was hiding under her G-string.

What the show brings to the stage :  Stage musicals are designed to grab people who can karaoke all the tunes being featured from what they recall as "their" time. Senior geezers may pine for South Pacific. Junior geezers will conjure West Side Story or the more current nostalgia piece Buddy! Early Gen-Xers might recall wistfully Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat that many of them acted in in grammar school.

Still, despite its plot and characterization that are complete and utter schmaltz, the 80's jukebox musical Rock of Ages succeeds in deriving a wee bit of emotional connection from all ages in the audience. Its clever linkages via song lyrics to the notional storyline start to grab. Grab even those of us who were lurching and flailing into middle age at the time -- with kids and careers and fat credit card balances, we hardly had the time to immerse ourselves or get wildly nostalgic over all this new noise -- much of it quite tuneful, mind you -- that blared out at us from the car stereo.

Production high-lights of note :  Just entering the G.I. ACT arena one starts to feel the tickle : Marshall McMahen's set design is stunning. Ersatz neon announces Girls, Girls chilling out in green-&-white outsize martini glasses, also a ROXY lounge take-off plus Sunset Strip Tattoos and Tower Records signs alongside a period Shell gasoline emblem. Below them looms the band's perch set on a scenery wagon that takes up half of upstage with its two bass drums, four cymbals, four guitars and keyboards. To each side are elevated scaffolding to represent fire escapes where a lot of second-storey activity occurs to nice effect. Clever flips from this opening tableaux to subsequent Bourbon Room and Venus showgirl settings, too.

Sound? you ask. Check the list of music groups above. Sound Designer Brad Danyluk and Musical Director Sean Boynton probably thought they'd died and found a stairway to heaven with all that delightful noise they needed only to amplify and then let the band do the rest. Which they did with verve, gusto! and passion all night long.

All good, the previous. But it is Lighting Designer Robert Sondergaard's consummate creative precision with the stage lighting that for this reviewer almost, almost! ran away with the show all by itself. I am not sure in 45+ years of attending ACT starting at the Seymour site that I have witnessed quite such a display of ingenuity and freshness in the use of criss-crossing follow-spots on the actors (and audience...) and coloured red mood lighting and back-lighting and and and. Truly a light show, lit. & fig., quite distinct from the Helen Lawrence wizardry Mr. Sondergaard created in his 2014 ACT debut outing. Spec-tac-u-lar crystal crisp effects indeed. Not unlike the rock concert motif that Director Peter Jorgensen obviously had in mind for this somewhat mindless bit of dramatic fluff driven by the time-piece glam favourites that are the show's raison d'être. 

In all this not to forget Director Jorgensen's choreography that worked well throughout embracing the whole stage. No question that Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" to end Act I followed by the iconic "Don't Stop Believin'" show-stopper by Journey truly cinched it.

Acting pin-spots : As Sherrie, Marlie Collins wow'd the crowd all night long. Powerful pipes, great hair, enticing and stunning facial expression. Her "High Enough" duet with Mr. Penny -- who was eager and engaged as the charming naif -- would bring me back easily. 

Lauren Bowler as Regina has a voice, both singing and speaking, that stops crowds dead in their tracks. And a natural acting magnetism to boot. Any show, any time go see Ms. Bowler. 

Kieran Martin Murphy as Dennis the maestro of Bourbon Room -- an ACT Buddy! veteran -- was sheer delight in his Haight Ashbury get-up, Hair! hair and expressive booming voice. Mr. Harris as Lonny, noted supra, was Supra!  His "I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore" duet with Dennis where these two mavens of the Room on the Strip come out was just plain fun. 

Clearly all 16 performers were selected for their unique acting nuances and undertones : not a weak outing for anyone on stage for sure. Their chipper Feel good! expressions at curtain were honestly earned without a doubt.

Who gonna like :  I confess I was prepared to not particularly enjoy this show. Silly plot. Thin characters. A rock concert in search of a narrative thread. But Director Jorgensen put the right ironic, goofy slapstick spin on everything such that the storyline needed to be, and was, utterly uncompelling. It was the music and the imaginative linking of lyrics to one another that give the production its draw. 

The enthusiasm of the crowd giving a standing-o to this troupe was deserved, just like the show itself : genuine and heartfelt and effervescent. Long at two-and-a-half hours by 30 minutes or more, still Rock of Ages will delight those who get a buzz off the nostalgic theatrics that the glam sounds of the 80's produced. Fun to be had sung robustly and big!

Particulars : Produce by Arts Club Theatre Company (52nd season, 582nd performance).  At the Granville Island stage.  From June 16-July 30.  Run-time 165 minutes including intermission.  Tickets & show times via Arts Club or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Book & Lyrics by Chris D'Arienzo.  Arrangements & Orchestrations by Ethan Popp.  Director & Choreographer Peter Jorgensen.  Musical Director Sean Bayntun.  Set Designer Marshall McMahen.  Costume Designer Jessica Bayntun.  Lighting Designer Robert Sondergaard.  Sound Designer Brad Danyluk.  Assistant to the Director Courtney Shields.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager Anne Taylor.  Apprentice Stage Manager Jenny Kim.

Performers :  Sean Bayntun (Jon / keyboards).  John Bews (Geddy / bass).  Lauren Bowler (Regina).  Aadin Church (Mayor / Ja'Keith).  Graham Coffeng (Hertz).  Marie Collins (Sherrie).  Nick Fontaine (Joey Primo / drums).  Paige Fraser (Franz).  Brett Harris (Lonny).  Hugh Macdonald (Eddie / guitar).  Kieran Martin Murphy (Dennis). Kale Perry (Drew).  Adriana Ravalli (Waitress).  Katrina Reynolds (Justice).  Mark Richardson (Jimmy / lead guitar).  Robbie Towns (Stacee Jaxx). 


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