Rock of Ages
Chris D’arienzo with arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp
Selladoor Worldwide, Dan Looney, Adam Paulden, Jason Haigh-Ellery and Gavin Kalin
The Opera House, Manchester
In the 1980s, heavy metal music merged with pop to generate a sound that was softer and more melodic but also epic in nature. It was the perfect soundtrack for an era of excess, when greed was good and women could be regarded as sexual objects, and is also the basis for Rock of Ages—a tongue-in-cheek musical by Chris D’arienzo.
Sherrie (Danielle Hope) is an aspiring actor and Drew (Luke Walsh) aims to be a rock singer but they both make ends meet by working in a sleazy Sunset Strip club run by Dennis Dupree (Kevin Kennedy). Conflict arises as the club is threatened by an urban redevelopment scheme and the tentative romance between Sherrie and Drew is confused by misunderstandings and the appearance of the jaded rock star Stacee Jaxx (Sam Ferriday).
Rock of Ages is an oddity—a self-aware jukebox musical. There is always an element of the ridiculous with musicals as, from time to time, the characters burst into song. In Rock of Ages, this is pushed to the highest degree; characters know they are part of a show and self-consciously shuffle around to make sure they are centre-stage for their big scene or to avoid blocking the spotlight. Whenever a passionate, over-the-top love duet is performed, you can bet there will be a third party caught embarrassed in the background trying not to interrupt.
The sexist nature of the song lyrics and the bawdy humour could, in these hyper-sensitive times, be considered offensive. The choreography, by director Nick Winston, increases this risk by replicating the bump and grind moves from heavy metal videos. But Nick Winston is actually ridiculing the sexist aspects. The staples of macho rock stars—phallic motorcycles and cars—are replaced by shrunken toys. It is hard to be offended when no-one in the show is taking any of the sexism seriously. Considering the butch song lyrics, the production is as camp as a row of tents with Lucas Rush’s fey narrator and Andrew Carthy’s conflicted and highly strung property developer.
The songs are rarely performed in full—the pattern is a verse and a chorus. Ethan Popp’s arrangements merge different songs together to create the effect of a call and response vocal or a conversation between characters. The staging of the songs is completely, and appropriately, over the top. At one point, a full gospel choir squeezes into the club to add backing vocals and act I ends with, effectively, an encore.
The singing is of a very high quality with Zoe Birkett and Luke Walsh stand-outs. The latter’s ability to hit and hold a note for extended periods is astonishing.
It is doubtful that anyone will admit to liking the soft rock from the 1980s but it had no pretentions other than to entertain. Rock of Ages shares this approach and the cheerfully over-the-top staging and the commitment of the cast to ensuring the audience has a good time makes it hard to resist. Rock of Ages may be a guilty pleasure but it is certainly a pleasure.
Reviewer: David Cunningham