Rock of Ages at the Nederlander Theatre Review – A Hymn to Mediocrity

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If you had to choose a single sound that evokes the now-faded rock era at its most visceral and thrilling, Robert Plant’s keening wail on any number of classic Led Zeppelin songs could hardly be bettered.

Sam Harvey

Now, imagine the multitude of lesser metal bands that bobbed in Zeppelin’s wake, none as good and some, like the “hair metal” bands arising out of LA in the early 80s, resembling Zeppelin only in their cock-rock posturing and their appropriation of the term “metal.”  

Next, imagine a hair metal cover band – sad enough — and, worse, a cover band whose music has been modulated, mellowed out and mediocratized to meet what some producers clearly imagine to be the tender sensibilities of graying Broadway audiences.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

That, in essence, is what you get with Rock of Ages, a jukebox musical with a book by Chris D’Arienzo currently lumbering through its 10thanniversary reanimation at the Nederlander Theatre in Chicago.

While there have been a lot of hand-wringing think pieces over the years about “the death of Broadway,” that storied institution seems pretty rosy-cheeked these days.  Not so rock music – go ahead, name one current rock band that is within shouting distance of Zeppelin, The Who, Creedence, the Allman Brothers, The Beatles, The Beach Boys or the Stones as their peak. You can’t — though, to be fair, it is not out of the question that a new generation of rockers could be cooking up some mind-boggling riffs in some suburban garage right now.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

What is certain, however, is that the combination of pandering Broadway bombast and hair metal – also known as glam metal and under either appellation one of the worst manifestations of rock ever conceived – is not only dead, but never should have been brought into this world to begin with.

But that admittedly harsh judgment is based mostly on this current production.  Once upon a time, the now-defunct Village Voice evidently called Rock of Ages “the most remarkable Broadway experience ever.” Even accounting for the blimpish blurb inflation that most Broadway shows enjoy, it is entirely possible that this show, with its well-known hits from Styx, Twisted Sister, Bon Jovi, Poison and others, was, at one point in the past, entertaining and with something of interest to say 

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

However, there are two major flaws in this 10thanniversary production that prevent it from being the most remarkable anything ever.  The first, specific to this production, is the egregious miscasting of the fictional young strivers, who, much in the manner of Mamma Mia, perform the well-known hits in furtherance of the thin plot they’ve been given to work with – supposed ingenues who have long since graduated from that category, rock stars without charisma, singers who don’t sing very well, and comic characters who aren’t actually terribly funny. The second flaw, inherent in the book, is the insincere and manipulative plotting – the narrator frequently breaks the fourth wall to announce that the show will now, as he thinks the audience expects,  feature a “meet cute” love story, or the  arrival of some much-needed conflict in the form of greedy developers who – solely because the plot calls for it – want to knock down the LA rock club, the Bourbon Room, where the characters develop their acts. 

The dialogue features lazy jokes about Phil Collins (who might not have been cool, but had more talent that any glam rocker you could name), lazier stereotypes about innocent small-town girls and jaded rockers, and some stereotypes that are just plain bewildering (are “effeminate Germans” even a thing?)  There’s a character here named Regina, and the other characters frequently remind us that her name rhymes with, wait for it, vagina! That’s the level of wit on display here. 

Though Rock of Ages is faintly parodic in tone, one can imagine a far better production that, like Spinal Tap, turns the satire level up to 11.  Alternately, one could imagine a production that played the songs, and the story, completely straight, and featured some amazing singing of these songs from some Steve Perry types, none of whom, regrettably, are to be found on the Nederlander’s stage.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

To be sure, there are enjoyable aspects to this production, which was brought to Chicago by the usually very reliable and discerning Broadway in Chicago.  The Rock of Ages band, conducted by Marshall Keating, is solid, and the entire ensemble participates in a rousing and enjoyable closing rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing.”  The show is a good introduction for younger people to some decent songs they otherwise would have missed; not all of the hits featured in this production are bland.  And some of the performers, especially Kristina Walz, who plays the aforementioned Regina, have the dazzle and charisma that this show requires. 

But these bright spots aside, this in-between, lukewarm production, about nothing, committed to nothing, and with neither the grasp of the antic and Dionysian spirit of rock nor the wit to mock its excesses, is a classic case of a show that is neither here nor there.  Or, as Neil Young once said, “everybody knows this is nowhere.”  If you appreciate rock music, with or without big hair and glam, I would recommend finding it elsewhere, at least until this 10thanniversary production takes a hard look at its casting and gets its act together.  But even if they manage to do so, the suspicion remains that Rock of Ages is a show whose time has passed, if it ever had a time at all.  

For more information about Rock of Ages

Photos for Rock of Ages Tour – Jeremy Daniel


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