Wednesday, Dec. 14 — Watch out, Lansing: “Rock of Ages,” now at the Wharton Center, will unapologetically rock you with all of the hairspray and bad taste it can muster. This monster-ballad mash-up may have the polish of a Broadway musical, but its heart lies purely in the adolescent bedroom of the ’80s. Like watching back-to-back hair-band music videos — with far better dancing — “Rock of Ages” is at once a winking parody and an earnest ode to some of rock’s guiltiest pleasures.
Jukebox Broadway shows are nothing new as producers seek ways to repackage classic genres into stage hits. But “Rock of Ages” uses the cliched plots and characters from many a musical to its own comic advantage.
Mullet-topped and mustachioed narrator Lonny (Justin Colombo) takes the audience back to Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip of 1987, accompanied by Poison’s “Nothin’ But A Good Time,” providing the perfect ambiance for a cast clad in leather and lingerie. In and around the dingy rock club known as The Bourbon Room, small-town girl Sherrie (Shannon Mullen) meets city boy Drew (Dominique Scott). Both dream of making it big.
Meanwhile, father and son German developers Hertz (Philip Peterson) and Franz (Stephen Michael Kane) bribe the mayor to tear down the Bourbon Room and surrounding buildings “Empire Records”-style to construct chain-store outlets. Throw in a Brett Michaels/David Lee Roth doppelganger Stacee Jaxx (Matt Nolan) to complicate the love story and countless glam hits like “We Built This City” and “Here I Go Again,” among many others, and “Rock of Ages” virtually writes itself.
The joy of the show is the journey — and I don’t just mean waiting to hear Journey. Like “Moving Out” or “Mamma Mia!,” “Rock of Ages” uses song lyrics as a storytelling device, whether it’s naming characters or reframing familiar refrains as soulful soliloquies. After being dumped as quickly as she was wooed, what could Sherrie possibly sing than “Harden My Heart?” It’s not high-brow or deep, but book writer Chris D’Arienzo’s clever integration of overplayed power-ballads like “Can’t Fight This Feeling” or “More Than Words” feels both inspired and original.
The actors make each song their own with range and support that often surpasses the original bands. Whether it’s Stacee Jaxx turning Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” into a melodramatic tale of road woe, or Hertz and Franz demolishing landmarks to the tune of “The Final Countdown,” the songs carry all of the acoustic and visual splendor that one only imagines while singing them in the shower. Damn Yankees’ “High Enough” receives prime treatment at the beginning of the second half as the show’s strongest duet and possibly its only complete number.
For the show to work, at least part of your youth should be associated with this music. Choreography and the lyrics themselves are highly sexually suggestive, although the action is relatively tame compared to some of the original MTV videos. Still, for raunchy, rocking remembrances, “Rock of Ages” is worth turning the dial way up to enjoy.
Rock of Ages
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14 and Thursday, Dec. 15; 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 16; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 17; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18