Review: 'Rock of Ages' is a Truly Immersive, Full-Body Experience

If ever there were a rock musical fit to be staged in a music venue with a bar, it’s “Rock of Ages”, the hilarious five-time Tony Award nominated 1980s hair metal parody.

Hope Repertory Theatre’s fantastic production of this sexy, goofy, rockin’ feel-good show transforms the historic Park Theatre in Holland into the Bourbon Room, a seedy club on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip in 1987, and the audience isn’t just passively watching a musical; we’re a glorious part of it—even waving glow sticks and bracelets as if they were lighters back in the day, swaying to “Every Rose Has its Thorn.”

The show, written by Chris D’Arienzo, features a heavy-rotation of glory-years MTV hits from Journey and Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar and Poison, Whitesnake and Twisted Sister, among others. You don’t have to love the music to surrender to the nostalgia it inspires, and even the most recognizable of the tunes are made new with the storyline and many of the surprising mash ups (arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp). 

“Don’t Stop Believing” and “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “We Built This City” sure sound terrific live from Music Director Dan Rutzen and his kick-ass five-piece band that plays upstage center all night, largely in character, and far better than any ‘80s cover band you could hope to hear.

“Rock of Ages” opened on Broadway in 2009, ran for more than five years, and was adapted for a 2012 film that was so bad it gets made fun of in the script. The show constantly makes fun of itself while telling the story of Drew, just a city boy born and raised in south Detroit, a bar back at a famous metal club who wants to rock and is waiting for a girl like Sherrie, oh Sherrie, an aspiring actress, just a small-town girl living in a lonely world. They both want to know what love is and, you guessed it, are on their way to finding it in each other, though it’s nearly thwarted by an egomaniacal rocker, some dangerous lap dances and a couple of German developers aiming to take down the very Sunset Strip rock venue, the Bourbon Room, in which the show takes place.

A huge part of the success of this production is the way it mockingly evokes the sights (set design by Sarah Pearline, costumes by Alyssa Van Gorder, props by Adrianna Nelson, spirited choreography by Abby Upingco) and sounds (designed by Jacob Myny and engineered by Thomas White) of the 1980s with real affection and a tongue-in-cheek aesthetic utterly in alignment with the silliness unfolding on stage, some of which is made all the funnier because under Alexis Black’s fine direction, these performers play their roles with realness as much as for laughs. 

It’s all hands on deck for this production, Hope’s finest this season, with Artistic Director Marcus Denard Johnson playing stoner burnout club owner Dennis Dupree with a surprising depth; Producing Director Lenny Banovez as sleazy rocker Stacee Jaxx, more a method performance than an over-the-top spoof, to even greater hilarity and effect; Oscar Izenson as the Puck-like narrator Lonny, who pops up here, there, and everywhere in cheap graphic tees with snarky commentary and plot clarifications; Chip DuFord as sinister German developer Hertz with son Franz played delightfully by Corey Barlow; Tiyanna Gentry as a wonderful Justice Charlier, the sexy, soulful, mama bear Madame; Alex Portaro as a naive, sweet Sherrie; and John Zamborsky as a phenomenal Drew—he sounds every bit a real rock star with a piercing, driving voice that matches the character’s yearning; and a huge, wonderful ensemble that meanders all through the theatre and audience in crop tops, mesh, tulle, and all that glitters and sparkles to create a live surround sound experience. 

The performances are universally excellent and combined with thoughtful technical elements in the perfect venue that feels as if it puts us in the actual time and place of the story unfolding, this “Rock of Ages” is truly an immersive, full-body experience. And that is live theatre at its best.

Rock of Ages
Hope Repertory Theatre
July 26-Aug. 8