Carnegie’s ‘Rock of Ages’ Helps Audiences ‘Feel the Noize’
Posted On June 23, 2017
Review by Sheldon Polonsky of Rock of Ages: Carnegie Theatre
Carnegie Theatre begins its 2016-17 season with the recent crowd-pleasing Broadway hit, Rock of Ages. And make no mistake, Carnegie fulfilled its mission in that respect: it was a huge crowd-pleaser, with a large enthusiastic audience who thoroughly enjoyed itself and was swiftly on its feet by the end. Despite anything else I may add, nothing should not detract from that significant accomplishment.
Rock of Ages is the quintessential juke box musical, featuring classic rock hits from bands like Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar and many others. The familiar songs, including numerous hits like “We Built this City” and “I Want to Know What Love Is” are loosely woven into what passes as a plot, not that it matters: a standard “boy meets girl” affair featuring Sherrie and Drew, an aspiring actress and rock star, respectively, working in an LA rock club. Sub-plots include something about German father and son developers attempting to build a mega mall on the strip and the self-obsessed, aging rocker Stacee Jaxx who is leaving his group to go solo. I say “something about” because unfortunately a lot of the exposition and dialogue occurs with the live band playing loudly in the background making it nearly impossible to follow. Often times the band also drowned out the singers and their lyrics. I know I am not alone in this as I overheard one patron during intermission commenting, “I’m not sure what’s going on, but I’m having a lot of fun!”
The Carnegie has attracted a lot of strong talent for its musicals in recent years, and Rock of Ages is no exception. The leads, Kelcey Steele as Drew and Ellie Chancellor as Sherrie, are charming and have great rapport with each other. They are accomplished vocalists although I did wish they had a little more edginess to their voices for this material and, as previously noted, were occasionally overpowered by the band. They were backed by a great supporting cast. My favorite was Spring Starr Pillow who played Justice, the soulful owner of a local strip club, who in my mind was the most compelling actress and had the perfect rock voice. Spenser Smith, as Franz, the younger of the German duo, had surprisingly powerful vocals and by far the funniest line of the night. Heather Hale, playing former city planner and social activist Regina (with a long “I”, don’t forget) was funny and adorable, but unfortunately was miked the poorest, obscuring an excellent voice, what I could hear of it. Matt Hudson provided great comic relief as the elder German, who in a very positive way seemed to be channeling the great comedian Eugene Levy, consciously or not.
Slightly less impressive, in my opinion, were Daniel Cooley as club owner Dennis Dupree, whose vocals were more inconsistent, and James Jones as the narrator Lonnie, who did not command the stage or the material as much as I would hope. Nonetheless, they did bring the house down with their comic second act number “Can’t Fight this Feeling”. Rounding out the supporting cast was Tyler Kuhlman as Stacy Jaxx, who clearly is talented but seemed underplayed and lost in the shuffle. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the spirited ensemble, who effectively backed up the songs and more than capably performed Roderick Justice’s exuberant choreography, as well as the outstanding band, directed by Jamey Strawn, who anchored the production.
The production was technically solid, apart from the sound issues, with an eye-catching set and costumes by designers Ryan Howell and Cheyenne Hamberg, and great lighting effects by Erik McCandless. Lisa Bodollo’s direction had some highs and lows. On the plus side, she certainly injected the production with the high energy it needed and met the challenges of the sometimes cramped Carnegie stage, even more tricky since it was dominated by the band in this production. On the negative side, either through timing or sound issues, I felt that some of the humor was drained from the show. In addition, the breaking of the “fourth wall”, an important element of the production as Lonnie and the cast often self-deprecatingly acknowledge that they are in a musical version of themselves, came off as somewhat artificial and stilted.
Bottom line: Rock of Ages isn’t for everyone. If you are looking for high art, deeper meaning (or any meaning at all), a soaring original score like Andrew Lloyd Weber or clever lyrics like Stephen Sondheim, you won’t find it here. On the other hand, if you love 80’s rock music and just want to reminisce and be entertained on a hot summer night, you will certainly get your money’s worth.
Tickets for Rock of Ages can be obtained at through The Carnegie Box Office, on-line at www.thecarnegie.com or by phone 859-957-1940. The show continues through August 28th.