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Amy Pemberton (Sherrie) and Oliver Tompsett (Drew) in Rock of Ages at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London.
Photo by Tristram-Kenton
If I could only use one word to describe this raunchy rock musical it would be FUN! It’s not perfect, by any means, or necessarily the piece of light fluff which many musicals intentionally are, but a major part of this show’s off the cuff charm is its seeming spontaneity. It’s comic and romantic action centres around two naïve young people who’ve gone to L.A. in the ‘mid to late ‘80’s’ in seach of fame and, love - Drew, from Detroit and Sherrie from, judging by the big map tracking her when she leaves home in search of her dreams, somewhere round Colorado way.
Beowulf Boritt’s larger than life sets for Rock of Ages, which are on show before it begins, say it all as they’re gaudy, sleazy, and full of big, bold neon signs proclaiming ‘Nude Girls,’ ‘Cocktails’ ‘Open 24 Hours’, etc, indicative of Sunset Strip of that era. Amid all this aptly tattered sleaze is The Bourbon Room, legendary rock club where heavy rockers Arsenal got their start. Drew (Oliver Tompsett) cleans toilets in the club and when Sherrie (Amy Pemberton) appears on the scene in the mandatory gear of the day – big hair, short skirt and high boots, he is instantly smitten. The fact that they both love Slush Puppies seems to give them an instant inkling that they’ve got a lot in common. You might think ‘common’ is the operative word here, but things not being what they seem, it really isn’t, as Drew and Sherrie are two characters with hearts, albeit cautious ones, as Drew’s naturally slow to make a move, and Sherrie’s been burnt before. So we have a scenario that ‘just ain’t gonna happen’ as the show’s seemingly all knowing narrator Lonny (Simon Lipkin) might say. Enter the ultimate front man, Stacee Jaxx (Shayne Ward), all testosterone and ego who gets girls just by crooking his little finger, to complicate things. Meanwhile on the political front, developers are moving in on the Strip and its burgeoning rock scene and Hertz (Rohan Tickell) and his son Franz (Sandy Moffat) who want to fill the planet with shopping malls are bearing down. Regina (Jodie Jacobs) launches a protest, recruiting all the scantily clad rock chicks and wanna be rockers from the Strip to join her. Will love triumph? Will the rock scene win the day? You’ll just have to go along and see!
Big, splashy and shamelessly manipulative, but fun nonetheless, Rock of Ages isn’t high art, but it never professes to be, with narrator Lonny bringing out his ‘Musical Theatre for Dummies’ book at just the right moment to disclaim any aspirations towards such aesthetics. One thing this show definitely is, however, is clever, as its writers understood when to have their narrator give the audience a questioning look in order to deflect questions, or, explain away the stereotypes onstage by giving an artful shrug or motion of his hands as if to say, ‘Whatta ya want?’ What most audiences want from a musical is to be entertained, and this show is entertaining. It’s also got a sense of playfulness that tends to keep one step ahead of it’s’ viewers assumptions and oft allows its’ characters to laugh along with us – very wise and no doubt, one of the main secrets of its’ Broadway success, where it’s been running for two years.
What we have here is a pastiche/parody of every rock band, front man and groupie who ever strutted their stuff, on the Strip, sure, but in reality, anywhere. This slant gives the show a wide frame of reference which many in the audience will instantly relate to, whether they were into the stadium, radio hit rock songs the show utilizes, or another type of popular music altogether. Anyone who’s ever been even remotely related to a band in any way, rock or not, be they a roadie, musician, fan, front man, groupie, girl or boyfriend, ex-wife, estranged brother, etc. is sure to find the antics in this show in relation to Arsenal and their egotistical front man, Jaxx riotously funny! But you don’t need first hand band entourage experience to be able to appreciate Jaxx’s carelessly cooed seduction lines, as the ruckus in the stalls behind us bore out when said scenes were being played, and a bevy of middle aged office gals were literally splitting their sides! We are rarely who we seem to be, but, as the clueless among us still tend to judge a book by its’ cover, a bit of leather and eyeliner goes a long way towards making a guy seem a lot tougher (and more interesting) than he really is.
On that note, let’s zero in on this show’s stars, beginning with Amy Pemberton as Sherrie, who, with her blond girlishness and diminutive figure looks like a young Kylie Minogue, though Pemberton’s well feigned U.S. chutzpah makes her character seem more spontaneously glib and cute than girlie, despite all her feminine paraphernalia. Her Sherrie seems like she can handle whatever life throws at her, even if she doesn’t really know the score and Pemberton pulls this paradox in her character off very well, getting laughs just where she should and making us feel her Sherrie belongs with Drew as she does. Pemberton’s singing voice is well suited to her role too, as she is able to soar when she needs to on rock ballads and keep her delivery short and snappy on more rockin’ numbers. As her wanna be rocker leading man, Drew, Oliver Tompsett is tops, particularly in terms of his vocals, which exude stadium rock inflections, even reaching those pesky high notes, seemingly with ease, and his acting is very naturalistic as well, making his character a likeable guy, with more than a modicum of heart, who nonetheless holds back too much for his own good. We’ve all known guys like Drew and seeing Tompsett’s performance brought back fond memories of old long-haired friends. Pemberton and Tompsett’s duets are very well performed and definitely among the highlights of the show.
Another highlight which is truly in a class by itself is Shayne Ward’s swaggering portrayal of cowboy hat wearing, long blond curled, tight satin jeaned Arsenal front man Stacee Jaxx, whom all the girls drool over, despite his cave man technique. It was ever thus, as my granny would say and Ward plays it for all it’s worth, slithering along the stage like the snake Stacee is, being just as funny on film clips of his character, allegedly, living the rock n roll lifestyle surrounded by adoring groupies at home in his mansion, as he is onstage, being Stacee’s nauseatingly conceited self, even while screaming into a mike. The funniest thing is, lots of us especially women, have known guys like Ward’s Stacee too. He really means business when he’s singing as Stacee and Ward is so convincing in all aspects of his role that the show notches up to eleven like the amps in Spinal Tap whenever he’s onstage.
As Lonny, the show’s narrator and fixture in The Bourbon Room, Simon Lipkin is very good, in fact, he actually keeps the show afloat in its’ weaker moments, though it has to be said that some of the more obviously sexist jokes have got to go, as they fall flatter than a proverbial pancake, and represent time wasted that could either make the show a bit shorter, or, better, or both. Regardless, Lipkin performs very well in his role, which is a pivotal one, especially when he interacts with the audience and appears to help the show’s action move along in the romance department. Lipkin also has a strong, rousing voice especially suited to rock, so he’s very well cast and, rightfully, much appreciated by the audience come curtain call time. His onstage cohort, Justin Lee Collins who plays The Bourbon Room’s slightly older, hung over hippie manager Dennis Dupree and gets top billing, alongside Shayne Ward, is also very suited to his role, which, like Lipkin, he puts his all into, and Collins’ singing voice is also, far better than adequate, as is his comic timing, elevating rather ordinary material into something approaching electrifying at times. This show’s characters are, for the most part, played very broadly, so it takes sharp comedic timing and way above average vocals to pull everything off and Collins and Lipkin both raise the bar and maintain their high performance standards very well.
Rachel McFarlane as Mother, the singer turned gentlemen’s club owner also deserves accolades, for in addition to having the most striking singing voice in the company, (no mean feat among such talented singers) McFarlane also imbues the show with its’ few moments of touching realism, bearing the torch for its’ message that the dreams we hold onto when we’re young are not always the ones we attain. But, as her fellow performer Lipkin aka Lonny elaborated, we often come out of it with dreams we never even thought of when we came in.
More stereotypical characters are also, none the less well performed here, with Jodie Jacobs as Regina, the activist in hippie’s clothing throwing stands of Hair into the mix, exhibiting a flair for both comedy and singing while she’s at it. Sandy Moffat, who plays Franz, son of the big, bad German developer, must have had ballet training to dance on his toes and leap as he does, and like Jacobs as Regina, with whom Moffat plays many of his scenes, he has a real knack for belting out a song, great for a rock musical. Rohan Tickell as Franz’s father Hertz is the villain in the show, aka the man who forgot that ‘they built this city on rock n’ roll’ to quote Starship’s song. The German characters are played more like caricatures and that aspect, coupled with Moffat’s campness is akin to the original black and white movie version of Little Shop of Horrors in which young Jack Nicholson famously played a pain loving dentist.
Some of the show’s jokes are cliché, like some of its characters, but the way in which they use those rock songs I’ve always loved to hate for love scenes, like Foreigner’s two hit ballads, ‘I’ve Been Waitin’ (for a girl like you) and ‘I Wanna Know What Love Is’ is so effective, I found both songs going through my head after the show. Which, made me realize that they’re actually, as good or better than love ballads you’d find in any other musical and, totally suited to this show’s purposes. Other well placed ‘80’s hits include Pat Benatar’s ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ which I’d completely forgot about, but aren’t likely to now, thanks to Sandy Moffat’s comic treatment of it as Franz. And of course we can’t forget Starship, whose rock anthem ‘They Built This City on Rock n’ Roll’ becomes a song of defiance in the show, with Jodie Jacobs giving it her all as Regina, the gal trying to stem the tide of so called progress. Then there is Rachel McFarlane’s moving version of Quarterflash’s (what’s in a name?) lone hit, now dated in its’ original form, ‘Harden My Heart,’ which actually becomes a thing of beauty when re-addressed by her, in song, alongside Pemberton as Sherrie as the two women reflect on their heartaches. There is a whole host of artfully placed songs in this show, some familiar, some not, most very well utilized for both song and, dance, which include ‘The Final Countdown’ (Europe – 1986) and other ‘80’s glam metal hits by Styx, Bon Jovi, Journey, Twisted Sister, Poison, Steve Perry, Asia, and in the case of ‘Come On Feel the Noise’ (1973) – Slade.
Dancing is energetic to say the least, driven by Kelly Devine’s choreography, which is often playful, seems challenging to most audience members and doubtless, the dancers as well, and is more often than not, very imaginative. Some of the female ensemble scenes are raunchy enough for real life exotic dancers to take on and, judging by some of the audience response, pop-eyed, middle aged males, eager to seem like they’re still in the running identify with it too!
There is a band onstage for the duration which provides all of the real action and oomph beneath the show’s high-flying vocals consisting of Nick Kendall and Nick Radcliffe on Guitars 1 and 2 respectively, Oliver Poschmann on Bass and Chris Maitland on drums. The show’s opening sequence in which one of the guitarists stands on the edge of the stage and lets rip, long hair blowing in the breeze, is iconic to say the least, and really sets the tone.
Gregory Gale resists the tendency to embellish his costumes with too much glitter and sequins, front men excluded, of course, allowing studs, leather and bright colours to suffice, which they amply do. German characters, Hertz and Franz start off in functional gray and navy with Franz becoming more and more Technicolor as his true colours are unfurled. And contrasts such as that between hippie Dennis and rocker Lonny are shown via Dennis’ brown fringed suede vest and flowered shirt as opposed to Lonny’s studded black leather, slim fit black jeans and biker boots.
The lighting designs of Jason Lyon favour pink and purple for tawdry club scenes, bright up lighting for our rockin’ guitarist at show’s opening and softer, moonbeam like rays when love finally comes home to roost. Though, there always an irony here, throughout all the elements of this show, so in scenes where Drew is meant to be wooing Sherrie but falls down on the job, lighting tends more towards the bleakly banal rather than the romantic to reflect his flubbing.
With Rock of Ages, we have a show that’s full on in the visual sense of the phrase, manipulative to the point of showering the audience with glitter, streamers and fake rose petals, first rate in terms of its’ singing, dancing and performing, that momentarily lapses at times due to lame jokes. But for all of that, it’s still a show with a big, beatin' heart ‘neath its’ rock n’ roll tat.
l to r:Justin Lee Collins (Dennis), Simon Lipkin (Lonny), Sandy Moffat (Franz) in Rock of Ages, Shaftsbury Theatre
Photo by Tristan Kenton
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