Direct from the West End, this Broadway smash-hit jukebox musical, featuring 80s’ glam rock classics from Whitesnake to Journey, transformed a rainy evening in Cardiff into a hot summer night on the Sunset Strip – and had everyone on their feet and singing their hearts out by the final curtain.
A quick proviso: I came to this production as a fan of the show; this will have been the third time I’ve seen it (fourth if you count the movie adaptation), and it holds a special place in my heart, being the first show I saw with one of my best friends in our undergrad days. Suffice to say I went to this production with my rose-tinted glasses firmly in place – though it also made me slightly predisposed to be critical of a musical I hold so dear.
So I’m happy to report that I adored this production! I forgot everything that was troubling me in the real world and just basked in its frenetic charm for two and a bit hours. Joyfully directed and choreographed by Nick Winston, the show is a funny, sexy nostalgia-fest featuring the rampantly rowdy riffs of The Final Countdown, Hit Me With Your Best Shot, and Cum On Feel the Noize to name but a few. I’m not always a fan of jukebox musicals, but Rock of Ages employs the right songs in the right places to tell an intentionally conventional story in a new, entertaining and outlandish way – and with a soundtrack that good, you can’t help singing along.
The ensemble is excellent across the board, with high quality singing and dancing and a real sense of fun from start to finish. Small-town girl Sherrie (Danielle Hope) and city boy Drew (Luke Walsh) make for a lovely central duo with great chemistry and amazing voices, who have their moments both as a couple (the epically melancholic High Enough) and individually – Hope performs an excellent, edgy rendition of Harden My Heart, and Walsh brings bravado and lovable naivete to a cracking version of I Wanna Rock. And Adam Strong, Sinead Kenny and Bobby Windebank turn what could have been throwaway characters into standout supporting roles.
But Lonny is the lynchpin of the show, the naughty narrator who guides us gleefully through the increasingly raucous debauchery. If Lonny doesn’t work, neither does the show – and the character’s passivity in the 2012 film version was one of the many reasons that adaptation failed. Luckily, Lucas Rush is the absolute highlight of this tour: a hilarious punk-rock Puck who runs away with every scene he’s in – the second act suffers primarily because he’s not in it much. Channelling Sam Rockwell and Starkid’s Brian Holden – complete with John Oates hair – Rush brings Prince-like pizzazz to the proceedings and steals laughs, applause and our hearts as the show’s mischievously metatextual master of ceremonies.
His common-law business partner Dennis Dupree is gamely played by Kevin Kennedy, suitably shambolic as the avuncular guardian of rock who runs the paradisiacal Bourbon Room. Vas Constanti pitches his delightfully OTT German businessman Hertz Kunemann somewhere between Young Frankenstein’s Inspector Kemp and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Baron Bomburst, and Andrew Carthy portrays his son Franz as a kind of Bavarian Pee-Wee Herman.
Glamorous and gregarious, Zoe Birkett keenly plays the sharp, more sinister edges of Justice Charlier while also making her a sympathetic, entertaining and simply sublime stage presence. She owns the stage with every note she sings, bringing epic gravitas and impressive pipes to Shadows of the Night and Any Way You Want It.
Easily the most knowingly grotesque version of the character, Sam Ferriday’s Stacee Jaxx is the Nosferatu of the Sunset Strip: creepy, predatory and unsympathetic, he makes for an effective antagonist and a compelling caricature of 80s narcissistic stardom, giving entertainingly offbeat renditions of Wanted Dead or Alive and I Want To Know What Love Is. This is ain’t Tom Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx, redeemed rocker and eventual family man – Ferriday’s Stacee might just make out with you and off with your soul.
This is a gloriously inclusive show, where everyone is celebrated and teased in equal measure – but sadly they shy away from giving the only queer couple their deserved romantic dues. Yes, Lonny and Dennis still manage to bring the house down with Can’t Fight This Feeling (complete with a spritely, balletic body double for Dennis), but the number didn’t quite reach the (comedic or romantic) heights of other productions for me personally.
The 80s are a comforting time, near-mythic in their modern-day romanticisation. It’s comforting to look back at that era of hyperbole with a knowing grin, giggling at the outlandish outfits and big hair and the songs with choruses that can never die. Rock of Ages isn’t afraid to stoop too low for a joke, and not all of them land – it’s an 80s-set show, so hardly a bastion of wokeness – but it ribs itself in this regard with a knowing comment, wink or nudge to the audience. That said, the German caricatures are a bit uncomfortable at times, and sometimes the show basks in the stereotypes of its era a little too indulgently – and it wouldn’t hurt to have a more diverse cast.
Given that the last Rock of Ages-related property I saw was the disastrous movie adaptation, it felt like coming home to see it reign onstage once again. The film totally missed the point of the show: as musical!Lonny says towards the coda, ‘the dreams you come in with might not be the ones you leave with – but they still rock’. In the movie, everyone got a happy Hollywood ending with recording contracts and stadium tours a-go-go; but the message of the stage show is that the truly fulfilling dream is not to pursue the superficial adoration of celebrity, but to find someone who gets you, accepts you, and loves you for you. Justice Charlier’s dreams had to be snuffed out so she could survive in a cutthroat world, and Stacee Jaxx may well have started out as a wide-eyed innocent like Drew before notoriety corrupted him absolutely. Fame is hollow – your friends and family are the best fans you could ever wish for.
The full power of the assembled ensemble is left in no doubts after a powerful performance of act one-closer and show calling card Here I Go Again, and an affecting version of Every Rose Has Its Thorn. And If you aren’t energised and inspired by the incredible, deservedly iconic Don’t Stop Believin’ finale, then you’ve either never had a dream or you ain’t got a pulse. Raucously raunchy and joyfully uncompromising, Rock of Ages is energetic escapism of the highest calibre that you should absolutely see at the New Theatre this week – just maybe don’t watch it with your mum…