The first time I saw Rock of Ages was aboard the Norwegian Breakaway cruise ship last May. About halfway through the show, I slouched down in my seat, with my hand over my face, groaning and laughing about what a weak plot it had. But by the end of the show, I was just as pumped and upbeat as everyone else walking out of the show. The songs stayed in my head for the rest of the cruise. Somehow, I had been infected with the Rock of Ages bug. So much so that when I was planning my July trip to Vegas, it was one of two “must see” shows I booked. I had to see how the Vegas production compared to the Breakaway‘s.
Both casts are good, but somehow, I found the show at the Venetian much more interactive and intimate. Maybe it was just that I had a seat closer to the stage. I love the fact that the actors regularly “break the fourth wall” by addressing the audience directly (especially the narrator, Lonny, played by the awesome Mark Shunock).
Here’s an example of how this plays out:
Lonny (to Drew): “Nobody gets everything they want in life. Including all these people.” (Gestures at the audience.)
Man in back of theater (yelling): “I did!”
Lonny (after a couple of beats): “Sitting way back there? I doubt it.”
The audience ate it up.
Set in L.A.’s Sunset Strip circa 1987, Rock of Ages “tells the story of Drew, a boy from South Detroit, and Sherrie, a small-town girl, both in LA to chase their dreams of making it big and falling in love.” (If you haven’t been able to guess from that description, you can count on hearing Journey’s “Oh Sherrie” and “Don’t Stop Believin'” during the show.) The B plot is about how developers want to knock down the Bourbon Room (where many of the characters work) as the owner and protestors try to prevent that from happening.
My God, doesn’t it sound just like an ’80s movie?
I think that’s what really turned me around about the plot. At first I was comparing the story to film and television shows I’ve been watching during the past decade, which are much darker tales with multifaceted characters, but the truth is, back in the ’80s most of my favorite movies had very simple black-and-white characters and equally simple good vs. evil plots. You knew what to expect from these stories. Despite the lightweight plots, they had heart and uplifting endings. They were feel-good stories. So is Rock of Ages.
It’s a perfect musical homage to ’80s culture—the kinds of stories we enjoyed, our generation’s music—hard rock and ballads by bands with big hair, muscle shirts and leather pants. The music is without a doubt the star of the show, featuring classic ’80s tunes like “We’re Not Going to Take It,” “Nothing But a Good Time,” “Sister Christian,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “I Love Rock n Roll” and more. The full cast version of “Here I Go Again,” is a real showstopper (appropriate, since it leads into the intermission). Everyone threw themselves into it with such energy. “Don’t Stop Believin’” is another full cast song which is a real highlight of the show.
The ’80s references don’t stop with the music. You see it in the fashion, the props—like the huge “mobile phones” of the ’80s, bulky headphone radios, a boombox, fingerless gloves, exercise leotards with sweatbands, and yes, big hair. I saw decade-appropriate items I haven’t thought about in thirty years and had moments of “Oh my God, I remember that!” For that reason, I’m not sure anyone who didn’t live through the ’80s would appreciate the show quite as much as those of us who did, but based on the audience reaction to the show I went to, everyone can enjoy it at some level.
This is not a child-friendly show, or for those who are easily offended by swearing and sexual innuendo. The ’80s rock culture was oversexualized and sexist, and this musical depicts that realistically. I wasn’t offended by this, because it was all part of the plot and time period and the show pokes a lot of fun at those attitudes. On the other hand, I felt a little uncomfortable at first that gay characters (or mistakenly gay characters) were being used for laughs, although it was nice to see that by the end of the show, everyone was rooting for them. So there’s that.
How are the performers? Solid. There have been a couple of cast changes since I saw the show (goodbye, Kyle Lowder’s horrible wig and amazing abs), but of the cast that remains, I have to single out Justin Mortelliti (Drew) and Markesha McCoy (Justice/Mother) who have phenomenal voices. And Mark Shunock (and his mullet) pretty much steals the show.
In short, this is one of the most energetic, feel-good shows on the Strip and one I could go see again and again (and probably will, if it lasts). Will you enjoy it? That depends. Like I said, the music is the star of the show, so if you love the hard rock songs of the ’80s, you’ll probably love the show. If you hated them, you might want to check out one of the Cirque productions instead.
Disclaimer: I purchased my own show ticket, but received a complimentary upgrade from the Venetian.