Tuesday 23rd April 2019 at the Grand Opera House, York.
Rock of Ages. What a half marvellous, half bamboozling mess of a rock devil-may-care extravaganza!
By the end of the first act I was mulling over the probability of a ‘this show does not know what the hell it is’ verdict. It seems to take inspiration from all kinds of mish-mashed sources to produce some kind of Book of Mormon – Chicago – We Will Rock You – Shrek – Cats – Rent type muddle. The good news is that this seems to be entirely intentional with the show wisely opting for self-mockery as a rocker musical supposedly trespassing in Sondheim land as opposed to presenting itself with sincerity.
By the end of the second act, I was pretty chipper as the comedy accelerates and the script improves significantly (Book by Chris D’Arienzo) – hell, it’s pretty difficult not to get sucked into the fun-loving ridiculousness of it all and at the end of the day, the show nails some great comedy and some stellar vocal performances.
The best thing about this show is its comedy. It’s funny in a Book Of Mormon meets Beevis and Butthead meets Pinky and the Brain kind of way. Unsurprisingly, the best thing about this show is the hilarious heart and soul Lucas Rush who plays the incorrigible lovable jester Lonny.
His pivotal approach to getting laughs is that hands held up ‘we know, we know, but it’s entertaining at least, right?’ brand. As our indefatigable sassy NarraTOR and our whacky compère, he offers such delights as bringing on a Musicals for Dummies Guide to introduce to first act finale, pausing post musical number to make sure that we are all appreciating the super-necessary jazz hands. That stuff is brilliant simply because a self-aware, tongue in cheek production which openly acknowledges the foolishness of the vehicle side-steps the bulk of criticism by declaring: this is simply for kicks so take a seat and settle in.
There’s plenty of talent on stage. Leads Jodie Steele and Luke Walsh (Sherrie and Drew respectively) have fantastic voices as well as comedy chops. Steele’s voice could power an eighteen wheeler and have belts to spare. Walsh brings both belts and gravelly angst to his songs and together they make sure that the music of Rock of Ages soars. Zoe Birkett’s Justice reigns supreme vocally and produces show highlights more than once. Rush and Andrew Carthy also have fantastic voices – I wish we’d heard more from them!
Comic talent is equally rich and aside from the brilliant Rush, Rhiannon Chesterman, Andrew Carthy and Vas Constanti are top notch in bringing silly characters to the top of their capabilities. Steele and Walsh also get some great comic moments to make their place in the production worthy of their talents.
This is also a show turned up to the max on the raunchy scale. Director and Choreographer Nick Winston is hell bent on never letting us forget that we’re watching the rocker 80s. There’s plenty of sexual innuendo and outright sexual content to be found here. Expect strip clubs, lap dances and excessive ratios of face-to-crotch and face-to-cleavage as opposed to face to face humour. Expect sex toys and fellatio. Expect dippy females and handsy males. Expect lots and lots of thongs (costume from Morgan Large). Which brings me to the bums.
Now, never did I think I’d need to devote a section of a review to butts but here we are. In watching this show, you couldn’t be blamed for wondering if anybody thought at any point that an audience might want to see more of the actor’s front side. They skip the fancy footwork in favour of frankly tiresome buttwork to the point that I just wanted them to turn the hell around and stop vixen crawling with ass to the crowd every ten minutes. There’s a big difference between entertainingly raunchy moves in musical numbers and brazen excessive exposure which undermines the central action, and this production doesn’t strike the balance. Channeling 80s hedonism isn’t really justification for thirty or so minutes given over to this kind of of butt-centric voyeuristic titillation. Just sayin’.
Irrespective of all the bums, choreography is pacy and sharp with plenty of attitude. Direction of comic scenes works hard to alleviate the limitations of other less impressive elements of the production and the vocal talents among the cast are what every touring musical deserves. There’s plenty going right here. The show packs in the hits too, bringing us We Built This City, We’re Not Gonna Take It, I Wanna Know What Love Is, Hit Me With Your Best Shot and Don’t Stop Believin’ among some 29 songs of the 80s featured.
Rock of Ages is not designed to reinvent the wheel (the plot is basically a gleeful recycling of various musical plots visited time and again – Boy and girl have big dreams. They meet and fall. He ends up sad and lonely, as does she. She ends up lap dancing because hey, what else is there? The ending is happy). The show is also not particularly looking to impress with craftsmanship. It’s only evident aim is to entertain the masses and to bring in otherwise disinterested audiences and in that respect it most definitely delivers.
The crux of it all is that this musical mockery takes literal and stylistic inspiration from its muse of glam rock: it’s messy muddled madness with plenty of sex and audaciousness to conjure a bygone era of anything goes. If that sounds like your bag, congrats – you’re in for plenty of laughs and your favourite hits with a generous side of bums, bums and you guessed it – more bums.
Rock of Ages is presented by Dan Looney, Adam Paulden, Jason Haigh-Ellery, Selladoor Worldwide and Gavin Kalin. It plays at the Grand Opera House York until April 27th 2019 and you can find tickets here. The show then continues to tour until August 3rd 2019 and you can finds information on tickets and venues here.