Rock of Ages tugs at nostalgic heartstrings
Book by Chris D’Arienzo. Directed by Kristin Hanggi. Presented by Phoenix Entertainment and Bourbon Room Rocks. At the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Tuesday, May 8. Continues until May 13
If songs like “We Built This City”, “Harden My Heart”, and “I Want to Know What Love Is” make you cream your acid-wash jeans, then this might be the show for you. But you’ve got to be prepared to have your musical nostalgia freeze-dried, reconstituted, and marketed back to you in the most relentlessly cynical way imaginable.
Because marketing is what it’s all about. The show is called Rock of Ages, but it’s really just rock of one age, the ’80s, and it’s designed to open the wallets of a generation that wants to pump its fists in the air one more time before the arthritis really sets in.
Like Mamma Mia!, Rock of Ages is a compilation musical in which a bunch of existing songs are tortured into the service of contrived plot, but Rock of Ages makes Mamma Mia! look like a Hamlet of narrative sophistication.
In Chris D’Arienzo’s book, a small-town girl named Sherrie heads to Los Angeles dreaming of movie stardom. Waitressing in the now-famous rock bar, the Bourbon Room on Sunset Strip, she meets a wannabe rock star named Drew. They’re both innocent and good-looking, so we know how things will turn out.
A subplot in which commercialization threatens to undermine the spirit of Sunset Strip underlies Sherrie and Drew’s predictable romance. A German developer named Hertz—will the U.S. never tire of German villains?—plans to tear down the rock clubs and strip joints to put up chain stores like the Foot Locker. But it’s laughable that a show as commercially driven as Rock of Ages could pretend to be pure of heart.
And what spirit exactly is Rock of Ages defending? From my seat at least, it looked like a dream of entitlement imagined by stoned and sexist straight men. The manager of the Bourbon Room hires Sherrie for her waitressing job only after he gets a long look up her skirt. Later on in the show, Sherrie becomes a stripper. Conveniently, that allows most of the women in this piece to parade about with their asses perkily tilted up while wearing next to nothing but high heels. Yes, this show is set on Sunset Strip, but that doesn’t mean that ruthless sexualization—which, let’s face it, is selling the show—has to be presented as harmlessly good-humoured.
Dominique Scott, who plays Drew, has the vocal chords—nearly—of Robert Plant, and he takes full advantage of the sweet gormlessness that D’Arienzo has written into the character. Shannon Mullen’s Sherrie, on the other hand, is completely lacking in vulnerability, although she does have the most astonishing abdominal muscles I’ve ever seen on a woman.
Amma Osei, who plays Justice, the character who runs the strip club where Sherrie works, has a mahogany-rich and powerful voice.
Under Kristin Hanggi’s direction, Rock of Ages is tight, but it has no heart.