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Teasing '80s hair bands

Gravitas isn't the point of 'Rock of Ages,' a musical that lampoons an era of coiffeur-obsessed groups, but even so it strives to rekindle its animal spirits, guilty-pleasure style.

January 22, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

THEY'D never set eyes on each other before that first-date meeting at a coffeehouse on Sunset. Soon they were out in the parking lot, going at it in a car seat to the throbbing sound of familiar hard-rock tunes from the 1980s -- songs known for their high doses of hormonally drenched hedonism, low intelligence quotients and infinitesimal credibility among rock critics.

Now Kristin Hanggi and Chris D'Arienzo are coming back to Hollywood to bring to term the baby they conceived that day. And still, says their buddy, RJ Durell -- who is teaching the new arrival to bump, grind, strut and even do lap dances -- they've got sex, sex, sex on the brain.

Though that initial encounter between theater director Hanggi and scriptwriter D'Arienzo was exuberantly fecund, it should quickly be made clear it was strictly professional. After all, how carnal can you get in the front seat of a Mini Cooper at midafternoon?

Nevertheless, as they sit on a couch together during a break in rehearsals at a studio in North Hollywood, the two creative partners share a pleasant afterglow recounting the standout moments of "Rock of Ages," the new musical premiering Thursday at the Vanguard. It was then, while grooving in D'Arienzo's maroon subcompact to the songs of Ratt, Poison and Whitesnake, of Quiet Riot and Warrant, of Bon Jovi and Van Halen, and of Styx, Night Ranger, Journey and Pat Benatar -- among others -- that they first began excitedly to put narrative flesh on the skeleton of a new idea: that the rock-musical tradition begun nearly 40 years ago with "Hair" could embrace "hair bands."

"Most of the show was conceived while we were in that car, listening to the music," says Hanggi, who at 28 has established herself as an in-demand L.A. director of rock-flavored musicals both poignant ("bare," about gay teens coming of age at a Catholic boarding school) and raunchy ("Pussycat Dolls Live," a celebrity-studded all-female revue staged at the Roxy).

As each hit oldie played, D'Arienzo gave the director a play-by-play of what he envisioned happening on stage: which characters would sing which songs, how the lyrics would be split among voices to turn them into dialogue, and how the tale would play out.

"I was like, 'Oh, my God, this guy knows how to take song lyrics and totally turn them into storytelling,' " says Hanggi, who met with D'Arienzo, a 33-year-old screenwriter with a love of both rock 'n' roll and Broadway musicals, at the suggestion of their mutual representative, the Creative Artists Agency.

The musical is set during the mid-1980s, in the Sunset Strip club scene where real-world rock reprobates, such as Motley Crue and Guns N' Roses, got their start. Rock of Ages, a fictitious mecca for hard-rockers, is under siege by City Hall, which wants it demolished to make way for a yuppie-paradise redevelopment project. A boy from Detroit sweeps the rock club's floor, dreaming of headlining on its stage. A beautiful ingenue arrives from Kansas, bent on movie stardom. Romance stirs, until our heroine swoons for Stacee Jaxx, a star singer who is hair-band royalty, and a cad from his white cowboy boots to the crown of his long, luxuriantly fluffed 'do. Quickly used and spat out, the girl winds up dancing in a strip joint. True love wins in the end, and so does the love of rock 'n' roll, as a dizzily impassioned street protest -- shades of "Rent," although the creators say they really have "Les Miz" more in mind -- saves the embattled Rock of Ages from the wrecker's ball.

In this musical, depth, originality and surprise are beside the point, D'Arienzo says without apology. The idea is to embody the animal spirits of heavy metal hair bands and arena rockers while poking fun at their excesses. An onstage band is meant to crank out the hits with authentic guitar heroism and emphatic rhythmic crunch, while a cast of 33 singers, actors and dancers provides visual allure, humor and a sentimental ending. Not to mention plenty of sexiness -- which the show's producers say won't hurt when it comes to tapping into an audience of '80s rock nostalgists who ordinarily wouldn't think of buying tickets to a stage musical, but who may have fond memories of Tawny Kitaen's scantily clad crawls through Whitesnake videos.

Durell, the almost preternaturally upbeat and enthusiastic choreographer, says that "keep it sexy, RJ" is the advice he hears constantly from his collaborators and producers. In studying hard-rock videos of the era, he found plenty of room to maneuver without redundancy. "If you look at all the old Whitesnake videos and Journey, they're not dancing." Instead, the female actors are mainly sex objects, "standing there with pumps and something skimpy on, and fans blowing on them while they're making out with all the hot rockers."

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