Rock of Ages is another in a line of modern Broadway musicals that take inspiration in what could be coined the Mamma Mia effect. Mamma Mia built a show around the songs of Swedish Europop group ABBA. There have been more than a few that have followed in its footsteps. Now, there's Rock of Ages, a virtual 1980s jukebox of songs from classic rock bands and performers like Journey, Guns 'N Roses, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Foreigner, Styx, Whitesnake and the list goes on and on.
Happily for this particular touring production that opened a six-day run at the Adrienne Arsht Center, the music is what sells this show. The non-equity cast expends a lot of energy, but falters in the acting and singing categories, so what we're left with is something that feels like an evening spent in a karaoke bar.
The story is your typical boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-in-the-end. Its 1987 and small-town girl Sherrie (yes, you guessed it: her name is a perfect set up for Journey's 1984 hit Oh, Sherrie) has just arrived in Los Angeles via Greyhound bus from Kansas.
While on the infamous Sunset Strip, she's mugged and rescued by a bar back named Drew who works at the fictional Bourbon Room across the street. Drew has a motive for this temporary job: it gets him closer to the music so that one day he'll be discovered and become, you guessed it, a rock star. Sherrie and Drew hit it off for two reasons: they both love cherry Slurpees and they both want to be famous. The legendary rock 'n' roll club is run by Dennis, whose claim to fame is a short-lived tour with the Alan Parsons Project, and his sidekick, Lonny, the club's sound technician, and resident class clown.
Then there's the subplot that involves an evil German developer and his son, Franz, who have plans to redevelop the strip. They'll do away with places like The Bourbon Room and the neighboring strip clubs like Venus to create an urban mall. And Regina, a crunchy granola type who is determined to Save the Strip.
The book of the musical, by Chris D'Arienzo (who the Playbill says has his own band called Saint America, but he doesn't have many writing credits), finds a way for the chart-topping songs to somehow fit in to the play's storyline. And, yes, sometimes it's a stretch to take rock anthems that have lyrics that weren't meant for a musical and fit them in just so. When Father and Son have a disagreement, "they put up their dukes and get down to it" so that they can sing Benatar's Hit Me With Your Best Shot, supported with a group of choreographed dancers. And, then there's the aforementioned Oh Sherrie. If you take this all with a grain of camp, the cheesiness is appealing. There are times, however, that Rock of Ages becomes so riddled with Cheez Whiz that it plays like a Hannah Montana episode on the Disney Channel. A built-in laugh track wouldn't be a surprise at all.
Dominique Scott, who grew up in Miami, plays city boy Drew, who was born and raised in South Detroit (take it from someone who has lived in Detroit, by the way, there is no South Detroit, it's Windsor Ontario. Yes, we know, Journey says there's a South Detroit in Don't Stop Believin'). Scott works at singing the heck out of the '80s songbook and, thankfully, he's one of the strongest players in the cast, but the downside is that he and leading lady Shannon Mullen have no chemistry. Their duet in the second act of Damn Yankees' High Enough is strained in every way. Mullen has good dance moves but doesn't have a strong enough voice for some of the meatier songs.
Justin Colombo as the narrator and "dramatic conjurer" Lonny has some of the best lines and can't help but be the crowd pleaser. But Colombo's shtick becomes overdone and his constant upstaging takes away from what is written as a great comic part.
Totally miscast as superstar Stacee Jaxx is Universo Pereira. The actor, who is making his national touring debut, was utterly unconvincing (and sorry, but unsexy) as the rock god who is supposed to be irresistible.
There are standouts, though, in this touring production including Frank Zappa lookalike Matt Ban as Dennis whose comic timing is impeccable, Amma Osei as Justice whose rendition of Guns 'N' Roses' Every Rose Has Its Thorn was pure beauty (if she released her version on iTunes, I'd buy it), Stephen Michael Kane as the light on his feet, sequin studded Franz, who should get a shot at the role on Broadway, and the exceptionally talented Rock of Ages band Bryan McAdams, Chris Cicchino, Maddox, Alan Childs and Andy Gerold.
Perhaps the most fun at opening night was seeing the crowd that Rock of Ages attracted. I bet most of those folks in the first five rows already have their tickets lined up for Madonna's show at the Triple A in November. Will we see those same pink-haired people at Mary Poppins at the Arsht in January? Doubt it.
Rock Of Ages at the Ziff Ballet Opera House, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, through Oct. 14. 305-949-6672 or www.arshtcenter.org.