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THEATER REVIEW

Reviving an '80s energy without getting in too deep

The musical 'Rock of Ages' re-creates an era's mindless fun but rises only so far above it.

January 30, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Nostalgia for the '80s won't go away, even if those of us who came of age back then would like to suppress some of the memories. Musically, it was the era of schmaltzy rock anthems (remember Styx?) and guitar tantrums by rowdy suburban white boys. Fashion-wise, it was borderline traumatic. (Don't make us pull out our yearbooks.) Still, you've got to hand it to a decade that considered guys with painted-on jeans, heavily appliqued belts and fried Farrah Fawcett hair butch. Well, at least if they were twirling a guitar or swallowing a microphone.

That crazy, colorful female-mimicking (and exploiting) energy is on unabashed display in "Rock of Ages," the burst of retro adrenaline that had its world premiere Saturday at the Vanguard. If there's anything to the party tip that suggests playing music from the period when most of the guests were agonizing about prom, I suggest the producers contemplate flying in the 1,100 seniors who graduated with me from my public high school in the '80s (no need to pin down a date, thank you very much). This show is for all of us who still find ourselves lip-syncing down the supermarket aisles to Pat Benatar or sneaking Foreigner onto our iPods.

Everyone else will have to ask how much music video cheese they can stand to see theatricalized onstage. Note I didn't say dramatized, even though the book by Chris D'Arienzo tries to set up a "Rent"-like plot about a Sunset Strip music club threatened by a gentrifying German entrepreneur with little appreciation for the fact that, as the singers earsplittingly tell us, they "built this city on rock 'n' roll."

Sorry to say, but "Rock of Ages" lowers the bar, story-wise, for the jukebox musical, which is really saying something given the Broadway car wrecks of the past few seasons. As with "Mamma Mia!," the ABBA extravaganza that boosted the genre with its billion-dollar-and-climbing worldwide box office, the action is merely a pretext for another karaoke-inducing hit.

So when the conveniently named Sherrie Christian (Laura Bell Bundy) leaves Kansas to make it big as an actress in Hollywood, her parents belt out Night Ranger's "Sister Christian." And after she encourages her cute co-worker, Drew (James Snyder), at the Rock of Ages club on Sunset to go for his dream, he hammers out Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock." Needless to say, when life reaches a crisis point for our heroine, she'll be serenaded with a rendition of Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie."

An amusingly sleazy Dan Finnerty plays Lonny, the slovenly soundman and evening's MC who can't resist baiting the audience with his gyrating body. When Lonny falls in love with the last person you'd expect, the two break out into REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling," played (like the rest of the show) on a knife's edge between over-the-top parody and bird-brained sincerity.

Other characters include Stacee Jaxx (Chris Hardwick), the rhinestone-clad rock star who toys with Sherrie for a regretful night; Justice Charlier (a luscious voiced Michele Mais), the strip-club madam who finds work for down-and-out girls; and Regina McKaig (Patty Wortham), the ex-groupie who leads the fight against the German developer by enlisting his browbeaten son in a duet of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

For those whose skin is starting to crawl right now, be warned that you might find it hard to resist the infectious head bobbing, which reached epidemic proportions in the audience during Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" and Quarterflash's "Harden My Heart." Kinetically directed by Kristin Hanggi and choreographed with acrobatic eroticism by RJ Durell, the production may not improve the malingering state of the American musical, but it certainly creates a spectacle that shamelessly conveys the essence of what made the '80s, for better or worse, unforgettable.

The huge cast is a mixed bag in talent, though not energy. The chorus sings and dances with "Star Search" determination (that's the previous generation's "American Idol," for you young ones). And the principals are mostly terrific, especially Bundy (whose Broadway credits include originating the role of Amber Von Tussle in "Hairspray") and Snyder, who both have that '80s sex appeal down. They're eye candy with pipes.

"Rock of Ages," which has Vegas dreams and Creative Artists Agency support, succeeds in doing exactly what it sets out to do -- re-creating the mindless fun of an era that really doesn't deserve anything artistically better. Sure, be a snob about a show that has a place of honor for Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," but you might find yourself picking up one of the cigarette lighters on hand after the song's done and requesting an encore.

*

'Rock of Ages'

Where: The Vanguard, 6021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday

Ends: Feb. 18

Price: $34.50 to $45

Contact: (800) 595-4849

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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