Before the show had even started, my ears were bleeding. Pounding rock musing consumed the theatre. I’d been handed a plastic imitation lighter. Ushers were hawking beer in the aisles. I knew I was in for a long haul, and my instincts weren’t off.
If any of the above sounds appealing – run, don’t walk – to see Rock of Ages, the hopelessly inane, tactless, and tacky new ’80s-themed musical at New World Stages that utilizes a wide variety of ’80s rock songs by a range of different artists, including Journey, Poison, Jefferson Starship, Styx, Joan Jett, and more.
Set on the Sunset Strip in L.A. in the “mid- to late-1980s,” the plot here, a simple “boy meets and falls in love with girl, loses girl, finds girl again” story juxtaposed against a creaky subplot about the possible demolition of the Strip, is conveyed by a gratingly annoying Jack Black-style narrator named Lonny, the punter of most of the show’s off-color jokes. Lonny makes it clear just how self-knowing the musical wants be. “You gots to make your own destiny,” he tells the other characters. But it’s difficult to enjoy – even in good fun – a show that features a line like, “Remember when you fucked that baby llama?”
By my count, Rock of Ages features just about every kind of bad joke out there – German jokes, gay jokes, balls jokes, penis jokes, STD jokes, tranny jokes, poop jokes, sex offender jokes. You name a borderline-offensive topic, this show has got a joke about it.
But what more do you expect from a show that features leather strap-clad babes, a stripper pole, and palm trees? And that’s just in the first five minutes.
To its credit, the show is no snooze-fest. It’s overly amplified and objectionable enough to hold one’s attention throughout, though I groaned most of the way through. Most of the fun to be had by the audience is in the “a-ha” moments of recognition when another of the ’80s anthems bleated its way onto the stage. Because the music isn’t designed to fit the characters, the characters’ scant, trivial motivations are shoehorned into songs that are consistently one size too big or small for the situation. “How awkward is it that we’re breaking into song right now?!” the musical seemed to scream during most of its duration. At first, this amuses; soon, it grates.
To be fair, most of the performances here are fine, even if the characters themselves are mostly uninteresting. Constantine Maroulis and Kelli Barrett as the central couple are fine singers and likable presences. And Lauren Molina and Will Swenson, recently acclaimed in New York revivals of Sweeney Todd and Hair respectively, give funny – if beleaguered – comic turns in supporting roles.
What disturbs me most of all is that director Kristin Hanggi would even agree to mount this show in the first place. How a self-respecting woman could direct such an “oh my God, look, tits!” sort of show is beyond me. After a rousing stripper-laden rendition of Journey’s Any Way You Want It featuring provocatively derivative choreography by Kelly Devine and a shoddy subplot in which our heroine takes up stripping, I kept waiting for the moment at which all of this objectification is countered by something redeeming, some final resolution, a morsel of tact.
Instead, I got a sugar-coated happy ending wherein our ingenue finds that love in the suburbs can be just as fulfilling as reaching for your ambitions. And that pregnancy is the ultimate fulfillment of womanhood. Cue Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ . Ushers rushed to the sides of the auditorium, waving their plastic faux lighters, encouraging the audience to wave them in time with the music. Groaning, I folded my arms and let it wash over me, dumbfounded.
One bloody ear, three wounded sensibilities, and five or so beers later (OK, so I exaggerate), I’m still not quite over the trauma of this spectacular waste of time. Do your health and well-being a much-deserved favor – I implore you – and stay as far away as possible from the ironically forgettable Rock of Ages.