It was a comfortable 72 degrees last evening in North Carolina, and I’m sliding my way to my second-row seat — Mountain Dew in one hand, funnel cake in the other. The sun set as both lawn chairs and beer cans are popped open in anticipation of a raucous night of rock music. From the massive speakers above comes the voice of Doug Austin of KIX 102.9 FM, welcoming me to the event.
But I was not at Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival. I was at The Theater. Sort of.
I was at Rock of Ages: Theatre Raleigh’s first performance under the stars — a joint production with Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre. The four-night run stars an aw-shucks adorable David Toole as aspiring singer-songwriter-guitarist Drew Foley as he attempts to woo small-town Sherrie Christian, played by an earnest Cameron Wade. An understated Ken Griggs plays the lovers’ employer — middleaged stoner and bar owner Dennis Dupree — and Charlie Brady portrays the amusingly flamboyant frontman Stacee Jaxx.
Our interrupting and unnecessary narrator Lonny is played by a tirelessly committed Jack Boice; and Lauren Barone plays the fierce, Joan Jett-inspired revolutionary Regina Kuntz. Carly Jones deserves more stage time as strip-club owner Justice, while Melvin Gray shines as both ensemble dancer and in the dual roles of Ja’Keith and Candi. Alexa Blair Robertson turns heads with her Tawny Kitaen-inspired gyrations, choreographed by Abbey O’Brien, but not all ensemble members share her enthusiasm for the material.
Theatre Raleigh’s decision to use the Koka Booth Amphitheatre for this production is an exciting one. And the Thursday-night audience was on its feet by the show’s end. But from my vantage, in an attempt to blend stage musical and arena rock concert, director Michael Berry ends up competing with himself — with neither art form earning his full attention.
The show’s true stars and, perhaps, the sole reason for seeing this production, are music director/keyboardist Jay Wright and his kickass band: Jason Steffen and Michael Kennedy on guitar, John Simonetti on bass, and Dale Baker on drums. The leads’ vocals are quite solid, particularly those of David Toole and Cameron Wade. I got a sense that the ensemble has strong harmonies, but I could hear almost none of their hard work.
Chris Bernier has designed a simple, functional set, with a number of fun details (such as bathroom graffiti reading: “for a good time call 867-5309”), but on-set tables and chairs were left to block some audience members from viewing the central action. Costume designer Sarah McCabe stays true to form with ripped denim and bandanas, while hair and make-up designer Maggie Slaughter and wig designer Tiffany Bolick do much to keep the 1980s alive on the actors’ heads.
Lighting designer Christina Munich was handed the keys to the castle on this production, and certainly made use of the concert lighting available. However, the near-constant movement of the intelligent lighting distracted from much of the show’s action, and became visually fatiguing almost immediately, save for some lovely cues for more emotional numbers such as the “More Than Words/To Be with You/ Heaven” medley and “High Enough.”
These emotional power ballads are where the production finds its footing, capturing the inherent theatricality of the 1980s smoke-filled music video. Using lighting and pantomime to suggest a car ride, or staging the hyper-cheesy “I Want to Know What Love Is” as comedic prove that this show can, in fact, be interesting theater.
A cacophony of nauseating lighting, haphazard staging, and ear-splitting sound cannot cover for a predictable, sophomoric script or flaccid, one-dimensional characters. No amount of smoke and lighting tricks can cover the cast’s visible lack of energy on the Act Two opener: “The Final Countdown.”
The show seems as though it were meant to be viewed from the lawn. It is big, broad, and loud, making use of live camera feed projections that cannot be seen by the first seven or eight rows. There is also a central catwalk, motorcycle entrance, and onstage band that cannot be seen by many in the far side seats. Aimless spotlighting made focusing a challenge, and a scene staged near the lawn was inaccessible to those of us seated in the front half of the house.
This jukebox musical plays on our nostalgia. And it can be incredibly effective. The “Oh, I remember that [song, politician, t-shirt slogan, soda brand]” feeling makes for a fun time. And the audience at Thursday’s performance was having a blast — particularly the drunken ones who behaved as though they were at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I, myself, love these songs and was happy to take a little trip down Memory Lane. But the tickle of excitement that I felt during the opening chords of Journey’s ” Don’t Stop Believin’” was not enough to sustain two-and-a-half hours of my attention.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Jersey Boys, and The Boy from Oz work, because the music is inseparable from the story. Singin’ in the Rain and Mamma Mia! work, because the character relationships are interesting. On Your Feet!, We Will Rock You, and Viva Forever! don’t work, because the story feels like an afterthought.
Rock of Ages is a world of in-betweens. Between parody and cliché. Between commenting on misogyny and reinforcing it. Between using profanity and childish substitutes. Between self-awareness and self-importance. Between a narrative and a third-rate tribute concert.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 6th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Evie Fordham: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article171411427.html; and Aug. 14th Cary, NC Cary Magazine preview by Alexandra Blazevich: https://www.carymagazine.com/features/rock-of-ages-reunites-old-friends/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 7th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/09/glam-metal-hits-from-the-1980s-propel-rock-of-ages-into-the-jukebox-musical-stratosphere/.)
Theatre Raleigh and the Koka Booth Amphitheatre present ROCK OF AGES at 8 p.m. Sept. 8-10 at the Koka Booth Amphitheatre at Regency Park, 8003 Regency Parkway, Cary, North Carolina 27518.
TICKETS: $22.50 general-admission lawn seats and $35 reserved seats, except $10 Student Rush Tickets (front-row seats sold the day of the show to students with valid ID).
BOX OFFICE: 800-514-3849 or http://www.etix.com/.
NOTE: The amphitheater’s gates will open at 6:30 p.m.
Rock of Ages (2005 Los Angeles, 2006 Las Vegas, 2008 Off-Broadway, 2009 Broadway, and 2011 West End rock/jukebox musical): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/35180/rock-of-ages (Samuel French Inc.), http://www.rockofagesmusical.com/ (official Broadway website), http://www.rockofagesmusical.co.uk/ (official West End website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/4787 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/rock-of-ages-482290 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_of_Ages_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Chris D’Arienzo (Hastings, MI-born playwright and screenwriter): http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/36669 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/chris-darienzo-482305 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0195476/ (Internet Movie Database).
Rock of Ages (2012 Warner Bros. film): https://www.warnerbros.com/rock-ages (official website), http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/864520/Rock-of-Ages/ (Turner Classic Movies page), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1336608/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_of_Ages_(2012_film) (Wikipedia).
Michael Berry (New York, NY director): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/michael-berry-110563 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1893464/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=779842927 (Facebook page).
Abbey O’Brien (New York, NY choreographer): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/abbey-obrien-389105 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm5017741/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://www.facebook.com/abbeymo (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.