NO KICK-ASSERY It’s tough to build a family-friendly show out of an X-rated scene.
At the start of the hair-metal musical Rock of Ages
(at the Colonial Theatre through October 17), narrator Lonny (Patrick Lewallen) promises a night of sexy decadence and general kick-assery. And for a few minutes, it seems the touring Broadway production just might deliver. There's a live band on stage shredding and hair shaking, and a hilarious intro video from Whitesnake's David Coverdale. And the stage is done up with billboards and neon to resemble the west corner of Hollywood's Sunset Strip, site of the Roxy club and the nexus of metal during its '80s heyday.
As anyone who's read Mötley Crüe's The Dirt will know, that corner of the world wasn't a place to take your kids. And Rock of Ages is left with the task of building a family-friendly show out of an X-rated scene. Writer Chris D'Arienzo tries to work both sides of the fence, introducing risqué elements and turning them into cartoons. But he winds up stitching the '80s hit songs together with a boy-meets-girl plot so flimsy that the players break character every few minutes to acknowledge it.
Directed by Kristin Hanggi, with choreography by Kelly Devine, the show works hard to deliver a rocking time, with the cast members making a few trips into the audience. (There are also Bud Light vendors in the aisles throughout the performance, which must be a theatrical first.) But despite the naughty words, the casual drug jokes, and one fairly racy strip-club scene, it all comes out feeling squeaky-clean. The sit-com-level plot hauls out a roll call of stock characters: small-town kids in the big city, hippie protesters, spoiled rock stars, a brassy madam with a heart of gold, and two characters who are made to be German so they can sing in Hogan's Heroes accents. There's also the requisite anti-rock forces — corporate types trying to bulldoze the club to build a strip mall. (Nothing like this actually happened; on the real Strip, malls were bulldozed to build a House of Blues.)
Yet it's the music — which fills a good 90 percent of the show — that keeps Rock of Ages locked into the sanitized American Idol world. The bands on the score are mainly of the earnest Midwestern variety: REO Speedwagon, Europe, Whitesnake, and Styx are represented, but not the true kings of the Strip — Guns N' Roses and Mötley Crüe. There aren't even any Scorpions for the German guys. The back-up group play like real rockers — and they are, with former Gigolo Aunts frontman David Gibbs as guitarist/arranger and their guitarist, Jon Skibic, on bass. But they're miked low and mixed to sound like a CD playing in the background, so you don't get the whomping drum and screeching guitar sounds that defined an arena-rock experience.
Two TV stars appear in featured roles: Constantine Maroulis, who at least brings some puppy-dog sweetness to the romantic lead of Drew, was an Idol finalist, and Mig Ayesa, who hams it up mightily as the Axl Rose figure Stacee Jaxx, was a runner-up on Rockstar: INXS. Along with female lead Rebecca Faulkenberry (who's also convincingly sweet as Sherrie), they sport the kind of wholesome, technically proper voices that play well on Idol but wouldn't have cut the mustard at the Worcester Centrum in 1986. The creators have de-rocked the music for Broadway but without providing the fleshed-out Broadway show to go with it.