Head-bangin' in the ’80s-hair-band musical Rock of Ages
Beyond a Vince Neil–size set of lungs, the ’80s-hair-band musical Rock of Ages requires two particularly demanding things from Justin Colombo: a mullet and a porn ’stache.
First, the dirt on the mullet. It isn’t the real deal, ’fesses the 22-year-old who plays the show’s hilarious narrator, Lonny. It sort of makes sense that in a production devoted to the era of big hair and poodle ’dos, some of those lame manes are fake.
“It is a wig that I wear, but because I have to do so much head-banging in the show, I have to keep my hair long so they can anchor it to my head,” reveals the performer, speaking to the Straight from a North American–tour stop in Regina. “We have a lot of wigs for this show—I think only two people are not wigged. And the wigs are great! We were rehearsing and then got into the tech run, and as soon as I put that on, the character was down.”
The hefty mustache and soul patch, however, are 100-percent Justin Colombo. The retro facial hair is not necessarily something he’s proud of, but it did just get him recognized in a Regina mall yesterday, he says.
“Yeah, it’s hard to get a table at Chuck E. Cheese when you have a mustache like mine,” he jokes. “I had to trim it, so the review the other day called it a Freddy Mercury mustache and I thought, ‘Great!’ ”
The show and its looks are all rather surreal for the fast-rising star, who was born in 1989, at the tail end of the decade that gave birth to Rock of Ages’ 30-plus hits by the likes of Foreigner, Poison, REO Speedwagon, Whitesnake, and Pat Benatar. They’re all belted out by the cast with a live band. Mamma Mia! was based around the songs of one group; this show, Colombo points out, fearlessly takes on an entire era.
To prepare for a production that takes place on the Sunset Strip and includes the odd X-rated joke about groupies, Colombo had to research the history of the era by, of course, reading Mötley Crüe’s memoir of debauchery, The Dirt. He also had to untrain his classically trained voice. The last show he did before Rock was Ragtime, after all.
“Our music supervisor put us through a rock-singing boot camp. He taught us how the old rock singers did it, and keep doing it,” says Colombo, who admits he still does an opera warm-up before every show. “We had to learn how to do that grungy sound safely.”
He laughingly recounts how the music director taught him and the other singers the right way to sing a David Lee Roth hit. It wasn’t “This must be just like living in paradise.” No, instead, as Colombo sings into the receiver, it was “This mus’ be juh lahk livin’ in parada-a-ahs!” Around this point in the interview, it becomes clear why some reviewers are comparing his Lonny to Jack Black.
Colombo now has a new appreciation for the pure, pregrunge energy of the ’80s hits in the show. “The lyrics of the music, when you break them down, are kind of awesome! Eighties music for me, growing up, was cheesy and corny, but there’s something powerful about them when you sing them,” he says, and then waxes on about the uplifting force of Whitesnake’s ode to survival, “Here I Go Again”.
“I didn’t grow up with this music, but my generation is starting to reclaim this music. I mean, [Journey’s] ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ ’ was my graduation song!”
Colombo also enjoys the vibe of a show that is as much a spoof of an era as an ode to its tunes. With its purposely clichéd story of a girl who heads to Hollywood (from Kansas, of course) and falls for an aspiring rocker, it’s also a witty send-up of musicals themselves. Says Colombo, whose character often breaks the fourth wall in the show, “I have a line at the beginning of the show: ‘I’m no Andrew Lloyd Sondheim, but I do know when you’re putting on a musical, you have to have a love story.’ ”
The show’s ironic, often inappropriate, and feel-good (or would that be Dr. Feelgood?) humour has brought it huge success: since its beginnings on a club stage in L.A. in 2005, it’s gone to Broadway and played to packed houses everywhere from Oz to South Korea. And a Hollywood movie based on it, starring a magnificently tressed Tom Cruise, is ready to come out.
The cool thing, Colombo says, is that the audience spans retro-rock fans and music-theatre buffs, and everyone has a good time. For the moment, his career in more classical work can wait.
“Who doesn’t want to be a rock star? And how many opportunities do you get to sing ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ ’ to a thousand people screaming along?” says Colombo, still marvelling that this North American touring hit is only his second show out of college. “Yes, I have a mustache. But you win some, you lose some.”
Rock of Ages runs from Tuesday to next Sunday (May 8 to 13) at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts.