Rock of Ages is a wildly fun musical filled with some of the best metal songs from the 1980s that have been lovingly nail gunned to a script that is so silly it will make your toes feel like giggling. In a new production being presented at Mercury Theater through September 10, Rock of Ages is guaranteed to be the most fun you have this summer in Chicago.
As you walk into the Mercury Theater in the Southport Corridor near Wrigley Field in Chicago, the staff has already set the stage for an amazing evening. The lobby is decked out with décor touting the rock n’ roll event patrons are about to experience. You’ll likely even be personally greeted by the house manager and invited to fuel up for the show with some pre-show drinks in the adjoining bar housed in the beautiful Venus Cabaret Theater.
Rock of Ages is set in the 1980s in the fictitious Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. The Strip was the place to be seen and to experience blazing heavy metal. Bands like Poison, Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Faster Pussycat, and Guns N’ Roses shredded the stages of clubs like the Whiskey a Go-Go and The Rainbow Bar & Grill.
I WANNA ROCK
I am not your typical theatre critic. I present my reviews based on my unique perspective, and I’ve lived a pretty interesting life. You could say my pedigree is oddly primed for a show like Rock of Ages.
I’m a theater guy who was mostly known for rock n’ roll characters. But at home, I wasn’t just rehearsing Broadway tunes. I was rocking out to bands like Bon Jovi, Warrant, and Van Halen.
Like many creative people, I’ve dabbled in other areas parallel to my performing. Somewhere along the way, I developed a career as a spokesperson, which led to business opportunities in public relations. I got rather good at it, eventually becoming the head of PR for one of the Top 200 brands in the US.
I am now the publicist for Steven Adler, the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame drummer who first gained fame with GNR – the world’s most dangerous band. This, of course, brings us full circle back to the world of rock n’ roll. And it also makes it clear that if the Mercury Theater production of Rock of Ages can pass my litmus test of excellence, then it must be damn good. But it’s better than that. It’s freaking awesome!
Rock of Ages takes the best glam metal hits from the likes of Bon Jovi, Poison, and Twisted Sister and weaves them together with a wonderfully ridiculous storyline, larger-than-life characters, and glorious costumes by Bob Kuhn – balancing reality with parody. Over-the-top wigs by Keith Ryan are icing on the cake of greatness.
Lonny is a would-be-rocker who now works at the Bourbon Room. Played to perfection by Michael Metcalf, Lonny is the heavy metal version of Shakespeare’s Puck – often breaking the fourth wall to narrate the silly story. He is infectiously charismatic and funnier than words. He appears to be having a grand and glorious time, and you’re invited along. And, oh yeah, the dude can sing!
When I say that Metcalf plays his role perfectly, it’s referencing just one element of an overall production from Tommy Novak that I wouldn’t change a lick of. Their direction is addictively yummy. From the moment the lights go down until the time you stagger away from the theater, it is a night of entertainment that ranks right up there with porn star hot tub sex in the Hollywood Hills. At least for those who enjoy such things.
The first song out of the gate is Cum on Feel the Noize, made famous by Quiet Riot. Entrusted to Lonny and his merry band of hard rock stereotypes, it sets the stage for an all-out party. If you aren’t having fun and dancing in your seat by the time the number is done, you are probably suffering from clinical depression.
But if you are depressed walking in, don’t worry. A few more wailing rock songs and sexy dances later and even the most afflicted will be able to put their antidepressants on hold and enjoy the natural high that comes from laughter and spectacularly epic music.
The story is silly – a wannabe rock singer named Drew falls for a wannabe actress named Sherrie while working at the Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip. German real estate developers are hoping to force gruff old club owner Dennis Dupree out of business to make way for retail shops. In trying to keep the club open, Dennis and Lonny pull some strings to get Stacee Jaxx, the hottest thing in metal, to use the Bourbon Room to launch his solo career. Somewhere in there is some romance and related stumbles that all propel us towards a happy ending.
The musical was conceived and written by Chris D’Arienzo. It features the music of such artists as Bon Jovi, Poison, Warrant, Twisted Sister, and Def Leppard – with even a taste of Pat Benatar and Styx tastefully thrown in.
Rock of Ages originated in Los Angeles in 2005. After several years Off-Broadway, it started thrilling audiences on Broadway in 2009. It earned five Tony nominations including Best Musical.
If you saw the film adaptation of Rock of Ages starring Tom Cruise and hated it, you’re in good company. It was absolutely awful – to the point, I questioned wanting to ever experience the musical on stage.
Thank God I decided to give the new production at Mercury Theater a try. It is a nonstop party of campy hilarity brought to life by an insanely talented cast and a kickass band under the spectacular direction of Novak.
There are many kinds of rockers. There are those who live the mantra of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Nikki Sixx, for instance, willed himself into being a rockstar. Stories are rampant that he didn’t even know how to play bass when the Crüe first got signed. (He has since studied the instrument and also recently celebrated 22 years of sobriety).
Another kind of rocker is the goofy guy on the outskirts of the industry. They dream of being the star in the spotlight; sometimes they even have the talent to justify it. But they lack the all-or-nothing self-confidence to make it happen. They usually end up in periphery jobs in the music industry – maybe as a roadie or working in a rock club like the Bourbon Room.
David Moreland’s Drew has all the talent in the world. He’s a little dorky, but that’s his charm. However, it’s also keeping him from landing the girl of his dreams or a record contract.
Moreland has an incredible voice. He is able to effortlessly blaze through vocals in a way that would make Sebastian Bach and Steve Perry applaud. He is thoroughly convincing in his acting – a joy to watch.
Kayla Marie Shipman is delightful as the small-town girl Sherrie who has come to California to be a big-time actress. But Shipman makes sure that her Sherrie is sexy in addition to sweet. She’s an excellent singer and dancer.
Club owner Dennis is exceptionally played by Steve Watts. He knows how to play it big or sincere as the mood calls for. But, he is always setting up a punchline down the road. He, Jason Richards (wonderful as the Mayor), and Jeff Diebold (who is devilishly fun as German developer Hertz) prove you don’t have to be a spring chicken in order to rock like Gods.
Stacee Jaxx is one of those roles that actors dream of having the talent to pull off. He has to be overbearingly sexy, sensual in his allure but still masculine despite wearing makeup, and he has to sing with the ferocity and range of Ted Neeley as Jesus Christ Superstar or Axl Rose as Axl Rose.
Sometimes stunt casting works. Sometimes it is a disaster. Donovan Hoffer achieved a level of household recognition from their appearance on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, which hopefully should help make Rock of Ages a sold-out run – because it deserves it. And Hoffer is one of the biggest reasons for that.
Donovan Hoffer is as good as any rockstar I’ve ever seen – and that’s the world I live in. Their Stacee Jaxx is a wet dream version of Bret Michaels infused with the talents of Prince and Freddie Mercury.
The ensemble is truly essential to the success of this magnificent production. Clayton Cross, Tafadzwa Diener, Shaun Dennison White, Julia Fleckenstein, and Rachel Thomas are phenomenal and really connect to the audience. Thomas and Fleckenstein really take it to the next level. I loved the eye contact.
Veronica Garza is very fun as Regina, a woman dedicated to keeping the Bourbon Room from closing down. Every bit as good is Aaron M. Davidson as Franz, the diminutive son of German developer Hertz.
HEAVEN ON EARTH
Like everyone else in the cast, Sharriese Hamilton has a voice designed to master this kind of music. Her turn as the owner of a neighboring adult dance club is lovely. On the night of review, Tyler Deloatch did a good job pinch-hitting as entertainment manager Ja’Keith.
Music director Linda Madonia has done a spectacular job. The band consists of some really great musicians: Justin Akira Kono (conductor/drums), Linda Madonia (keyboards), Cesar Romero (guitar 1), Samuel Shacker (guitar 2), and Jonathan J. Golko (bass).
Laura Savage’s choreography is creative to the hilt and the dancers do it the ultimate justice. One song I never much cared for in the 80s was Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar on Me, yet Savage and her dancers made me a fan.
The scenic design by Bob Knuth is pretty cool – placing us in a realistic bar in the heart of the Sunset Strip. Properties by Lonnae Hickman complement the design, as do lights and digital visual designs by G. “Max” Maxin IV. Sound design by Stefanie M. Senior balances the band and the vocalists well, creating a concert environment that doesn’t blow out the ears of the audience.
Please don’t let the horrible movie adaptation of Rock of Ages deter you from heading down to Southport Corridor and rocking out with the cast of the live show that is melting hearts and fueling the libidos at Mercury Theater. And don’t go timid. Go ready to have fun!
Whether it’s flower power or magical spirits, feel free to prime your engines before taking on this rock n’ roll adventure. I came dressed in hot pink and black leather ready to have fun, so once Lonny invited the audience to join in, I was singing along with the cast from the get-go. And it was a blast! All of the people in the audience who joined me would agree because they were clearly having the time of their lives.
Rock of Ages at Mercury Theater is more sinfully delicious than cocaine and groupies on the Sunset Strip. A good time will be tattooed on your soul.
The not-to-be missed musical explosion plays Wednesdays through Sundays through September 10th at 3745 N. Southport Avenue in Chicago. Performances are 7:30 PM Wednesday through Saturday, with 3 PM matinees on Saturdays and Sundays.
For tickets visit: www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
If the talented cast at Rock of Ages whets your appetite for destruction, I’ll throw a SHAMELESS PLUG your way….For those fans of the raw energy of the original music from Guns N’ Roses early days of infamy, the incredible Steven Adler is playing a special destination show at the legendary Golden Nugget in Las Vegas on August 4th. If you might be interested in joining the legions of fans flying to sin city for the Sunset Strip experience, check out the DETAILS. I assure you, the Golden Nugget will take good care of you!
Production Photos by Liz Lauren.
Preproduction Photos by Brandon Dalquist.
Another great show to put on your calendar is THE PRINCESS STRIKES BACK. This hit touring comedy is coming to Chicago for two performances. I highly recommend you catch at least one!
The Princess Strikes Back answers that question in a way everyone can relate to. It will make you smile until your cheeks burn and laugh like you haven’t laughed in years.
Coming to Chicago’s North Shore at the historic Skokie Theatre on Friday August 11 and Friday August 18,
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area
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