Adam Bruce, United Kingdom Critic
Jukebox musicals have become very popular over the last decade, especially since they have an innate ability to draw in audiences that are already fans of their musical scores, which are often built from pre-existing well-known catalogues. They also help to shine a new light on those catalogues through unique stories that enhance the audience’s experience of the music and atmosphere. Enter Chris D’Arienzo and his musical ‘Rock of Ages’, which, back in 2005, took Los Angeles by storm and headed off to Broadway in 2009 and stayed there for six years, also spawning a West End run in 2011 before being adapted for film a year later. With such a history of success, I was looking forward to catching the show on its new tour of the UK on its stop at the Leeds Grand Theatre.
Before we get into this review, it’s worth noting that the main downfall of jukebox musicals are their weak narratives, which often come across as last minute attempts to string unrelated songs together and ride on the coattails of the success of the songs. At first, this appears to be the case with ‘Rock of Ages’: set against the backdrop of LA’s Sunset Strip in the 80s, we meet local bartender Drew (Luke Walsh), who dreams of being a rock star. Enter Sherrie (Jodie Steele), an actress from out of town who dreams of making it big. The two fall for each other, but when womanizing rock legend Stacee Jaxx (Antony Costa) rolls into town, and when two German developers threaten to demolish the city’s beloved area, the two face great obstacles on their journey towards true love.
Sounds like a typical jukebox musical storyline, right? Well, here’s the thing, and one of the foundational keys to this show’s success: D’Arienzo, through his narrator Lonny (Adam Strong), cleverly turns the formulaic genre on its head by facing it head on to great comedic effect. The witty, self-deprecating tone develops superbly throughout; while at first we may have seen the bare bones of a bog standard jukebox musical with a fairly forgettable story, by the end of the show it becomes the exact opposite. We find ourselves rooting for the characters and the excellent performances that climb to a crescendo with an anthemic rendition of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, and leave the theatre feeling uplifted and engaged by the events of the last few hours.
Indeed, director and choreographer Nick Winston expertly taps into the show’s authorial tone to create an atmosphere akin to the euphoria of being in a glam metal band; the production drips with excess to the point where it’s accepted as something completely normal. The choreography harkens back to that which was present in glam metal music videos, as well as the lyrical content of rock anthems of the time – mainly about sex, alcohol and drugs – and becomes a key aspect of the show that communicates the area perfectly. It almost feels like the choreography becomes part of the scenography, since when combined with Morgan Large’s set and costume designs as well as Ben Cracknell’s lighting design, we’re transported back to a period of carefree excess, and everything works in a truly harmonious fashion to uphold the themes of the musical.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the exceptional performances and commitment from the whole cast. The entire company displays brilliant vocal prowess that allows them to perfectly convey the rock catalogue of bands including Bon Jovi, Styx and Poison, and they have a limitless, infectious energy that pulsates beneath their feet and reaches out to the audience as they execute the choreography. Their performances are well developed and perfectly attuned to the tone of D’Arienzo’s piece, which never takes itself too seriously and showcases a whole host of exceptional talent. When combined with Ethan Popp’s arrangements and orchestrations, which are excellently brought to life by the house band that features onstage for most of the show, ‘Rock of Ages’ is certainly a fun spectacle.
While the show might not necessarily be to everyone’s tastes or suitable for younger viewers (unless they’ve been raised on glam metal, I suppose!), there’s no denying that ‘Rock of Ages’ makes for a loud and very fun time at the theatre.
‘Rock of Ages’ is at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 3rd August. For more information, tickets and a full cast & creative list, visit: http://www.rockofagesmusical.co.uk/