Book: Chris d’Arienzo
Director: Kristin Hanggi
Reviewer: James Garrington
Rock of Ages has an impressive history. The stage show ran for two years in the West End, and is still going strong on Broadway – and the film version starred Tom Cruise and Catherine Zeta Jones. As it embarks on its first UK tour, how will it fare in the regions? Rock of Ages is set, as they tell us, in the “mid to late 80s”, and it tells of rock hopefuls Drew (Noel Sullivan) and Sherrie (Cordelia Farnworth) as they dream of becoming as big as their hero Stacee Jaxx (Ben Richards), only to find themselves brought down to earth by the reality. On the face of it, this is a fairly standard boy-meets-girl story, the sort of thing that can be found in many books and plays – but underlying this is a much darker, and not altogether pleasant, message.
The cast work very hard to prove that they can rock, and there are some impressive vocal performances although, maybe inevitably for a show based on rock music, much of it is very full-on. Noel Sullivan shows that he can act as well as sing, and demonstrates just the right amount of vulnerability as Drew. Drew’s hero, Stacee Jaxx, is a character totally without charisma or charm, a man who exists on the adulation of his fans without having to do much work to deserve it. That is how the rôle has been written, and as a result, Ben Richards really doesn’t get much opportunity to show what he can do.
As Sherrie, Cordelia Farnworth delivers a stand-out performance with a lot of emotion and a lovely singing voice, which has a pleasant mellow quality. Farnworth gets to perform one of the rare gentler numbers in the show, and her version of “More than Words” gave us a beautiful performance of a beautiful song. Supporting all of these vocal and musical performances is some impressive choreography by Kelly Devine, and the on-stage band led by Musical Director Pierce Tee who show that they also know how to rock.
One of the difficulties that this show presents is in the way it depicts the lifestyle of the era, and the stereotypes it includes. Women are portrayed as sex objects, with the vast majority of them dressed in their underwear for much of the evening. If they are wearing anything else, it is usually only so it can be ripped off. They are mostly included as strippers, waitresses or groupies, falling over themselves to be with their rock idol. Women are there to be exploited, and the sexual references are extremely unsubtle. When two German developers turn up, inevitably one is shown as shown as a Hitler-type character and the other as his somewhat camp son – though as he points out “I’m not gay, I’m German”. The humour seems more appropriate for a teenage boy’s dormitory than a stage show, and the tone is set right from the start where the usual warning about turning off mobiles and taking photographs is accompanied by the comment “unless you want to show us your breasts”.
Only Lonny (Stephen Rahman-Hughes) as the narrator seems to have any genuinely funny lines, some of which add moments of real humour – though when he bemoans being enticed to narrate a show based on Whitesnake songs and with no deep characterisation, you can’t help feeling that he has a point.
When it comes down to it, the audience at the Alex wanted a rock show, and that is what they got; loud music, loud vocals, “toilet” humour and full-on choreography. As a rock concert aimed at an adult audience, it works. As a musical, though, Rock of Ages may not be to everyone’s taste.
Photo: Manuel Harlan | Runs until 17th May 2014