Fort Worth — If the radio provides the soundtrack to our lives, popular music holds the key to turning back time. For time travelers interested in rewinding to the greatness of their 1980s existence, Rock of Ages at Casa Mañana is waiting to whisk you away to hair band heaven. Adam John Hunter directs this gleefully misbehaved evening of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Not necessarily in that order. Though it carries the very real warning “suitable for mature audiences,” a certain immaturity is required to fully enter into this rock n roll fantasy.
Be warned: It’s probably best for parties of the bachelor or bachelorette variety.
John Hays plays Lonny, our narrator of the Jack Black variety. From the outset, the show makes no claims to be anything other than a kick-ass assemblage of rock hits of the ’80s. Book writer Chris D’Arienzo threads a plot through the righteous guitar licks and radio hooks to be sure, but the audience is mostly listening for those anyway. Hays’ Lonny works to make the characters matter while remaining our rock and roll ringmaster.
The big top in this case is the Bourbon Room in 1987 Los Angeles. Scenic Designer Adam Koch creates a mountain of barroom memorabilia adorned with none other than the house band itself. Lighting designer Samuel Rushen answers with concert light intensity but reserves the right to create an intimate mood for the men’s bathroom or romantic headlight ambience of lover’s lookout point. Together they fit the mood to the room, but never forget that we’re here to rock.
Raise rock ’n’ roll fist here.
The boy-meets-girl story follows Drew (James Scheider) and Sherrie (Shannon Mullen). He works for Dennis Dupree (Christian Whelan) who once opened for Alan Parson’s Project and owns the Bourbon Room. She is fresh off the bus and looking for work. They aren’t hiring until Dennis happens to get a look at her rear end. Yep, it’s that kind of place and that kind of show. If you forget, Tammy Spencer’s costumes and Jeremy Dumont’s choreography for the trio of waitress/ensemble dancers will remind you. Victoria Garrett, Emmie Kivell and Olivia Sharber make every movement for mature audiences.
The plot engine is provided by the diabolical German development duo of Hertz (Bob Hess) and Franz (Charlie H. Ray). The father and son team have bribed the Mayor (Anthony Vincent Toudjarov) into letting them demolish the Bourbon Room to make way for their development. His advisor, Regina (Laura Wetsel) resigns in protest and begins demonstrating immediately to preserve the filth of the strip. Her increasingly extreme efforts provide comedic payoff until she gets to self-immolation. Apparently Fort Worth audiences cringe at a girl with a gas can and a box of matches.
In order to save the bar, Lonny convinces rocker Stacee Jaxx (Adam Michaels) to play his band’s farewell concert there. Unfortunately, Jaxx is a turbo-charged rock and roll sex machine and Drew has ineptly friendzoned himself with Sherrie just before the concert. The surprise of the show is that the twists and setbacks of the characters are affecting regardless of how telegraphed the plot may be. It helps that Mullen has played the role for three years in the national tour and that the director worked on the Broadway, London, Toronto and Melbourne productions. They clearly know exactly what they are doing.
That’s why the sound issues are so surprising.
This is a talented cast who can really rock out some of the songs. That’s a tall order when the audience’s nostalgia kicks in and they’re listening for the iconic trills of Steve Perry’s voice or gravelly punch of Joan Jett. If a singer falls even a little short, the audience doesn’t get quite the payoff they were hoping for. Mullen never disappoints, to be sure, and Michaels as rock star Jaxx predictably holds his own. The trouble comes when there is dialogue amidst the music. Broad swaths of comedic effort go to waste as one-liners; punch lines and even plot points get swallowed by even the tiniest bit of drumming. The audience seemed to give up on following the whys and wherefores, after a while, in favor of waiting for a lyric they recognized.
Then, all was forgiven.
For an evening full of showstoppers, there are a few toppers. M. Denise Lee as the Madame of the strip club where Sherrie inevitably works has a duet with Mullen. For a second, the audience is treated to radio rock’s gospel soul as Lee answer’s Mullen in Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart.” Another duet remains in the mind for entirely different reasons. Whelan and Hays’ “I’m Gonna Keep on Loving You” (REO Speedwagon) gets the campy tone of the evening just right. The top of the tops belongs to Charlie H. Ray’s flamboyant Franz. Paired with hometown favorite, Bob Hess, Ray steals scene after scene until an exultant reveal.
The show ends with a song so iconic that the entire audience stands, claps and belts it out. For a show that isn’t afraid of getting down in the dirt, the feeling is surprisingly elevating. Somehow, we went from raunchy to righteous.
I believe the trick is to hold on to that feelin’.