Review: ‘Rock of Ages’ is a visual, musical, nostalgic delight

Did any among us who lived through the 1980s ever think we’d long for them again? Who knew, thirty years later, the Reagan era would, indeed, appear to be a sexier time?

Nostalgia for that strange transitional decade with all its greedy, gender-bending, glam-rock glory fuels the campy jukebox musical “Rock of Ages,” currently at The Kalamazoo Civic, and it’s nothing but a good time.

The show opened on Broadway in 2009, ran for more than five years, was nominated for five Tony Awards and adapted for a 2012 film. With book by Chris D’Arienzo and arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp — featuring songs from Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Journey, Poison, Whitesnake, and Twisted Sister, among other now classic rock bands — Rock of Ages tells the story of Drew, just a city boy born and raised in south Detroit, a busboy 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 everyone’s favorite seedy Sunset Strip rock venue, the Bourbon Room.

Under Nicki Poer’s direction and with her fine attention to detail, it’s a fast-paced, high-energy, glittery acid-washed vision, laced with fringe and mullets galore. The show is an enormous undertaking (particularly for community theater), and with a cast of 18, a kick-ass live band in character — including head-banging Musical Director Courtney Carpenter wearing leather chaps on keyboards and keytar — is largely a success in the intimate space of the Parish Theatre. Despite lines and lyrics lost to sound balance issues, and voices that, though lovely, rarely come across as powerfully rock and roll, so much else is so right, they practically rock this place to the ground.

To start, it’s a visual delight. Katie Tulin’s scenic design transforms the multi-form space into a thrust stage with a proscenium beneath which the five-piece band plays center stage, exactly where they belong. With the aid of AnnMarie Miller’s flashy lighting design, it’s a rockin’ cover band concert with the added benefit of 18 singers and dancers playing out scenes full of bathroom humor, with archetypal characters who break the fourth wall and poke fun at themselves as well as the audience. Poer’s blocking makes wonderful use of the space, and her ambitious choreography is clever, fun and mostly well-suited to the varied skill level of the performers.

Barbara B. Moelaart’s bold costume, hair and makeup design captures the period while sculpting characters. In addition to acid wash and fringe, snakeskin pleather, tight jeans, shiny unitards, leather and chains and studded dog collars, crop tops and sparkle and mesh abound — not to mention the blue eyeshadow, enormous hair and mustache that deserves its own billing.

Performance highlights include Dwight L. Trice Jr. as narrator Lonny, who moves the story along at a clip with great flourish, expertly involving the audience, and saying as much with subtle facial expressions and brilliant timing as he does with his graceful pirouettes and bourres. He is the fabulous glue that holds together the seeming infinite moving parts of this show. Alec Olweean deserves props for his sneering sex face alone as sleazy Stacee Jaxx, and Sam Slottow and Ken Holda are exceptional comic actors especially wonderful together in their Jane Fonda-inspired “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”

Leads Robert Cook as Drew and Caitlin Sackett as Sherrie are sweet together, sing beautifully, and really begin to come into their own later in the show. Sandra Davis has a convincing rock-and-roll voice, presence and attitude; and though she only gets to use it to full effect in one surprising moment, Carlee Stoker as Waitress #1/Ambrosia has a notably powerhouse voice.

Despite any shortcomings, there’s so much to admire and genuinely enjoy with what this impressive ensemble creates, it’s nearly impossible not to get caught up in the light-hearted fun of this blast from the past.

Rock of Ages
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
Jan. 26-Feb. 11