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Rock 'n' mock

Over-the-top '80s musical thrills audience

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Rock of Ages celebrates the music of one age: the loud and proud '80s. The musical pays homage to power rock and the bands who played it, sporting absurdly blow-dried hair, bare chests, eyeliner and tight, tiger-striped Spandex.

The American touring production, which stopped at the Centennial Concert Hall for a three-day run that ends today, is as dopey and over-the-top as a true hair band should be.

Still, it rocks and it mocks -- and that thrilled the near-capacity audience, ranging in age from a 13-year-old boy attending as a reward for getting a 97 per cent average at Catholic school to headbangers who looked 97.

Rock of Ages is just an excuse to shamelessly raid the '80s-era songbook in the name of forced nostalgia for more than 30 ear-pounding classics -- K-Tel would have packaged them as 30 Mullet Masterpieces -- from the likes of Poison, Journey, Twisted Sister, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Starship and REO Speedwagon. Many people had their first kiss to these songs or sing them today at the karaoke bar, so there's a built-in audience for this music that has taken Rock of Ages a lot further then anyone would have predicted.

Awash in a collection of clichés and caricatures, the raunchy 150-minute musical shoehorns the songs into a feeble story that is set in the seedy yet fabled Bourbon Club on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, circa 1987. City boy Drew sweeps the floor there, while dreaming of rock stardom. He meets wide-eyed innocent Sherrie, just blown in from Kansas, intent on movie fame. Meanwhile, cartoonish developers from Germany are buying up businesses with the idea of cleaning up the strip and tearing down the Bourbon Club.

The plotting is so predictable that by intermission, some spectators surely thought there was nothing more to be gained by sticking around for Act 2. Who cares whether the boy gets the girl?

Book writer Chris D'Arienzo has the show's campy narrator Lonny acknowledge the cheesiness of Rock of Ages throughout, but he rightly invites us to laugh with '80s rockers instead of at them. Early on he plugs in the tunes to hit plot points. He names the ingenue Sherrie so her would-be boyfriend Drew can sing Steve Perry's Oh, Sherrie, and introduces the bulldoze-the-Sunset Strip sidestory in order to showcase the songs We Built This City and We're Not Gonna Take It.

After the break, D'Arienzo has his fun with the audience -- making it worth staying around -- by pairing songs and scenes no one could expect. The flamboyant son Franz ("I'm not gay, I'm German") finally stands up to his domineering father Hertz in an hilarious interpretation of Benatar's Hit Me With Your Best Shot. Then, with the bar facing closure, Lonny and its owner Dennis start getting all misty about their parting to the accompaniment of Can't Fight This Feeling and some side-splitting choreography.

On entering the concert hall Tuesday evening there was a somewhat disconcerting sign board indicating that lead lovers Drew and Sherrie would be played by their understudies. Danny McHugh as Drew was commendable as the kid with a dream, belting out I Wanna Rock and Waiting on a Girl Like You as if he had attained his dream. Christie Schwartzman's Sherrie looked the part, but her singing was average at best; she was upstaged by any partner in a duet, especially Amma Osei as the strip club owner Justice, whose powerful voice could blow the doors off the concert hall.

Justin Colombo's mustachioed Lonny is the comedic linchpin of Rock of Ages, supplying the silly, good-natured vibe and chewing up the scenery. Lonny often speaks directly to the audience, and when Drew complains about his crummy life he is handed a Rock of Ages program and told to blame D'Arienzo.

Other standouts are the German villains Franz (Stephen Michael Kane) and Hertz (Philip Peterson), who dances up a storm all night in a three-piece suit and tie. Universo Pereira plays Stacee Jaxx, a burned-out rock god, with comic decadence.

Driving the almost-concert is Arsenal, a five-piece house band that's onstage throughout. They are joined by writhing, scantily clad dancers who make Rock of Ages not appropriate for all ages.

Classic rock will never die and Rock of Ages is proof.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2012 C3

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