Heavy-metal heady musical

"Rock of Ages" bangs out the '80s, 31 songs worth, at the Merriam.

Posted: October 20, 2011

Electric, cocky, boisterous, kinetic, sometimes smart, sometimes dumb, and accelerating with hugely impressive speed - that's the big picture of Rock of Ages, the Broadway jukebox musical that reclaims the heavy-metal '80s.

The show's national tour, here at the Merriam Theater through the weekend, is better than on Broadway because of its killer cast, which strikes me as even more polished. That's not to say the Broadway version slumps by comparison - it's been playing for two years, is just short of 1,000 performances, and is also more magnetic as it rolls along.

The show is loud, as it should be. Too loud, though, at some points at the Merriam, where the bangin' backup band occasionally overwhelms the cast. At Tuesday's opening, some of it was also erratically miked, especially the audio for a minor character who figures in a plot pivot.

But, really, who cares about the plot - an iconic heavy-metal club on L.A.'s Sunset Strip is about to be destroyed by conniving redevelopers, like the wrecked relationship between the show's heavy-metal wannabe and his new-girl-in-town. It's cute - and so are the two unrequited- lovebirds, Shannon Mullen and Dominique Scott, who have the perfect pitch and lung-power for the songs.

Even though the plot is secondary to the musical numbers, Rock of Ages draws repeat audience members who came of age in the '80s; to be fair, they probably identify with the story as much as the music. That music is an assortment of hits that range from Journey's "Any Way You Want It" to Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" to Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" - pieces or full performances of 31 songs in all.

The numbers are cleverly woven into the story, which features friendly-but-zonked characters who seem to have been born in a Disney cartoon studio and were doing just fine until they happened upon a cache of acid. Just about everyone in the script is extreme - especially the narrator, played with in-your-face menace by Justin Colombo, personifying the only jukebox-musical character who resembles Shakespeare's Puck.

Others also stand out, particularly Stephen Michael Kane as the beaten-down son of the German developer who insists on the club's demise, and Matt Nolan as a lead-singing superstar.

It's the raucous rock that grabs me, though, in a show that really revs in its second half, and the dancing - wildly fluid choreography by Kelly Devine, re-created for the tour by Marcos Santana. You may hold your nose at some of the stupid jokes, you may hold your ears from the musical amp, but whenever the dancing begins, your eyes will be fixed on the cast. That's when the rock in Rock of Ages hits you.


Rock of Ages

Presented by the Kimmel Center and the Shubert Organization at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St., through Sunday. Tickets: $20-$100.

Information: 215-893-1999 or www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

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