“Rock of Ages” at Mercury Theater is the latest production of a jukebox musical to hit Chicago. Directed by Tommy Novak and with music direction by Linda Madonia and choreography by Laura Savage, the show features a compilation of 1980s pop hits, including by Styx, Pat Benatar, REO Speedwagon, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister and Journey, played by a rockin’ live band.
In a rundown bar along the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, bright lights and big hair frame faces with snarled lips, their hand-horns pumping while dancing and singing their hearts out. That’s all you need to know about “Rock of Ages.” The large cast boasts impressive vocal chops, and the long list of classic rock tunes is reproduced faithfully, except where actors breathe new life into worn material by adding a personal flourish.
The main story is trope ad nauseam: Sherrie (Kayla Marie Shipman) is a small-town girl (liv’n in a lonely world) who travels to L.A. with dreams of becoming a star; meanwhile, long-haired rocker Drew (David Moreland) tries to carve a niche in the competitive rock ‘n’ roll scene, only the songs he writes suck. They bump into each other on the street, literally, and begin a romance that results in him giving her the confidence to quit her stripper—sorry, exotic dancer—job; in turn, she inspires him to write a decent song.
Both Shipman and Moreland give dynamic performances. Shipman produces the quintessential vocal belting of an eighties pop diva, and Moreland has a voice like an infinite rubber band, no note beyond his reach.
Sure, we’ve seen this before. It’s hard to tell if writer Chris D’Arienzo is going full-satire or if there’s an attempt to put an original spin on the too-familiar tale (in the latter case, it fails). With movies about musicians—“Eddie and the Cruisers,” “The Commitments,” “Rhinestone,” “That Thing You Do!”—doing the same plot but better, it’s clear that the well is tapped, the story nothing more than a vehicle for the music.
There is a secondary plot, as hackneyed as the first. Avaricious German stereotype real estate developers, Hertz (Jeff Diebold) and son Franz (Aaron M. Davidson), are buying up the Sunset Strip, including the land beneath dive bar The Bourbon Room, run by aging hippie Dennis (Steve Watts) and his homoerotic love interest and Slash-sans-hat-lookalike, Lonny (Michael Metcalf). Joined by a ragtag crew of characters—activist Regina (Veronica Garza), past-their-prime glam rocker Stacee Jaxx (Donovan Hoffer) and waitress Waitress #1 (Tafadzwa Diener)—they “band” together and use the power of rock ‘n’ roll to change the hearts and minds of the cold-blooded Germans.
Again, if you’ve seen eighties films in the little-guy-versus-big-guy genre—“The Goonies,” “Used Cars,” “Local Hero,” “One Crazy Summer,” even “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”—then you are familiar with every trope in this plot.
Like the recent production of “Xanadu” at Metropolis Performing Arts, the cast seems to have been directed not to care about the story, and often break the fourth wall. With a wink and a smile, they deliver jokes about poop, penises, drugs, sex and more poop. The rampant self-awareness sharpens the dull edge of the material, implying, “We know, we know, let’s just have fun!”
Overall, it is fun. The band rocks, the singing is topnotch, the well-known tunes are either identical to their originals or sonically embellished and the entire cast gives maximum effort. If you’re in the mood for a raunchy rock concert but want to get to bed at a decent time, then check out “Rock of Ages.”
“Rock of Ages” runs through September 10 at Mercury Theater, 3745 North Southport. Showtime is 7:30pm Wednesday-Saturday, with 3pm matinees Saturday & Sunday. Tickets are $39-$85 and are available at MercuryTheaterChicago.com.