Upon its debut on Broadway in 2009, the jukebox musical Rock of Ages represented a strange dichotomy for fans of American musicals.
Plot-wise, the story is as old as that musical theatre chestnut 42nd Street: a fresh-faced girl seeks stardom in the big city amid a populace of cynical, seasoned urbanites.
The difference is that the big city is Hollywood, the year is 1987, and the avenue we're taking you to is Sunset Boulevard.
It's the music that really distinguished Rock of Ages from the realm of Rodgers & Hammerstein/Lerner & Lowe songbooks. It is in fact like some kind of K-Tel Greatest Hits of the '80s package with contributions from bands such as Journey, REO Speedwagon, Styx and Pat Benatar.
So, no, Rock of Ages is not the touring production you have to see if you're seeking Sondheim sophistication. But according to triple-threat actress-singer-dancer Shannon Mullen, it is a place to go if you're looking for a rockin' good time.
"I saw the show on Broadway when it first opened and I just loved it," says Mullen, who plays Sherrie, the aforementioned young woman seeking rock stardom at a Sunset dive called the Bourbon Room.
"It's just raw, funny humour and it's not everybody's cup of tea, but to me, it was just right up my alley," Mullen says. "I really loved the comedic timing of the acting and it's really smartly written. And even though it's a really cheesy storyline and everybody knows where it's going, the songs are really what the focal point is. And they come out of nowhere."
Ah yes, the songs, which range through We Built This City, Wanted Dead or Alive, Can't Fight This Feeling and, inevitably, Don't Stop Believin'.
While Mullen has performed in more conventional pieces of musical theatre including Hairspray and Legally Blonde, she was disinclined to look down her nose at the musical's emphatically pop repertoire.
"I've always been one of those kids who listened to everything growing up," she says. "The songs you hear in our show are songs that you hear everywhere, every bar, every sporting event, every commercial. They are people's No. 1 choices for karaoke songs. They're such classic songs and to sing them every night is so much fun."
And if you believe those tunes are any less challenging than classic Broadway tunes, take up the matter with Mullen's co-star Danny McHugh, who plays Drew, Sherrie's romantic interest.
"Behind Jesus and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, this is one of the most difficult male rock roles to sing in all of musical theatre and it still kicks my butt every single night," says McHugh, who usually performs as part of the ensemble, but will be stepping up to the lead role for the Winnipeg run of the show in his capacity as understudy.
McHugh says he and the rest of the touring cast saw this summer's movie version of Rock of Ages at a midnight screening and asserts the movie is very different from the live show.
"There is a big difference in the characters who made the cut from the show to the movie and there are new characters in the movie as well," he says. (Catherine Zeta-Jones's conservative anti-rock activist, for example, was a character not in the original show.)
"It's different enough that I think people can enjoy our show and the movie and not really feel like they've seen the same thing twice," he says. Mullen concurs.
"The thing that makes it unique is that we break the fourth wall with the audience," she says. "We have a narrator on the stage the whole time, and he plays off them," she says. "That element is gone in the movie and it takes a lot of the fun out of it. We look at them as two completely different things."
Vocal gymnastics aside, one of the more challenging aspects of the show is wardrobe, especially for Mullen, who initially had to steel herself for the requirements of authentically '80s hair and a wardrobe befitting a Hollywood stripper circa 1987.
"It was big hair, big crimps, and a lot of hairspray, but it's a lot of fun and I'm over that," she says. "The other thing is that I'm playing a stripper, wearing all these '80s plastic looking clothes.
"It's just comical now and I'm kind of immune to it," she says. "But at first it was like: Whoa, what is this?"