Who doesn’t love a love story, especially one set to the ’80s music we Gen Xers love to bang our heads and air guitar to? For its 10th anniversary Broadway season finale, the Paramount Theatre presents the five-time Tony Award-nominated musical “Rock of Ages.”
Categorized as a jukebox musical, “Rock of Ages” first premiered on Broadway on April 7, 2009, and closed in 2015 after 2,328 performances. It was even made into a movie starring Tom Cruise in 2012.
With book by Chris D’Arienzo and orchestration by Ethan Popp, songs cleverly are woven into the plot and further it along. “Rock of Ages” features songs from all those glam metal bands of the ’80s: Journey, Styx, Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Pat Benatar, Steve Perry, REO Speedwagon and Twisted Sister. As a matter of fact, the listing of titles and rights takes up an entire page of tiny print. Interestingly, Def Leppard’s song “Rock of Ages” is not in the musical because the Universal Music Group did not grant the license for the song.
The production is choreographed and directed by Amber Mak, who first saw it while living in New York City and would use her “outdated student ID to snag a $25 ticket.” She stated that the show allowed her to “indulge in my fantasies of being a spontaneous carefree rocker and groupie.”
Well, her cleverly staged direction and talented cast with a magnificent five-piece, live-on-stage band (Janis Wallin, Jim Widlowski, Dan Peters and Scott Tipping, conducted by keyboardist Kara Kesselring) rock the audience from beginning to end.
And remember we are in the late 1980s. The massive and stunning set design by Jeffrey Kmiec comes complete with trap doors, lifts and fog bringing Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip and Bourbon Room into reality. It is beautifully showcased by the lighting of Greg Hofmann. Katie Cordts’ wig and makeup design (mullets, big hair, black eyeliner) coincides flawlessly with Theresa Ham’s retro costumes of leather, fringe and those infamous short shorts. And for the fearful, Adam Rosenthal’s sound design won’t leave you with bleeding eardrums.
In the mist of all the ’80s metal ballad hits rolling out, there is a story. The Bourbon Room (where rock reigns on Sunset Strip) is about to be demolished by two German real estate developers who believe a strip mall will bring Sunset Strip into “clean, efficient and pure” life. In a last-ditch attempt to save the Strip, the Bourbon Room’s owner persuades the mega star band Arsenal to play there to raise money; the band is scheduled to perform their last show, as the rock star lead has announced their breakup. Fortunately, the lead owes the Bourbon Room owner a favor after a certain Cool Whip/baby llama incident. Of course, there’s a romance – this time a messy triangle between a struggling actress/waitress, a struggling musician busboy (they meet after a street mugging), and a debauched rock star.
And what a cast of 24. In all my years of reviewing, I don’t ever recall seeing such an energetic and impressive group of performers gifted with such sensational vocals and physical abilities – oh, the athleticism! Even before the final curtain call, audience members are up on their feet applauding and joining the entire company in singing “Don’t Stop Believing.” It’s a well-deserved standing ovation. Throughout the show, there’s ample opportunity to clap and sing along and raise those fake lighters (conveniently sold pre-show) in the lobby.
Shea Coffman is Lonny, the narrator aka “dramatic conjurer.” He is an extremely likable, comedic actor who breaks the fourth wall to address the audience often; he’s absolutely charming, a source of great timing and versatility. Coffman is the momentum that keeps the show going.
Taylor DiTola may be petite, but her voice is gigantic. She is the sweet small town girl and waitress Sherrie, and is an exceptional, incandescent actress.
Nick Druzbanski is first introduced to us as Franz, when he comes onstage to do a very entertaining pre-show intro. He’s an absolute delight. His comedic timing, vocals and delivery of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” in a duet with spitfire protester Carisa Gonzalez’s Regina is a scene stealer on par with Coffman’s later bar stool duet with the amazing Karl Hamilton’s Dennis, the aging and beloved Bourbon Room owner.
Melody A. Betts is Justice, the heart-of-gold gospel singer and flamboyant owner of the Venus Gentlemen’s Club. Her luxuriant voice and appearance are confident, compassionate and dazzling.
Naturally, there has to be a villain in a musical, and in this case there are two. Michael Ehlers as Hertz, the German father of Franz, is redeemed in a poignant “Keep on Loving You,” which he delivers touchingly with strength. It’s Josh Scholl as Stacee Jax who is the true villain, but don’t worry – he gets his just rewards. Scholl looks and acts every inch the narcissistic rock star; you’ll hate him. Scholl is brilliant.
But it is Kieran McCabe as Drew who will literally knock your socks off and send them flying. He is a mercurial dynamo: he can sing (and what range), he can dance, he plays a mean guitar, he even can roller-skate, and he shows vulnerability and sweetness with DiTola’s Sherrie. McCabe has chemistry on that stage with everyone.
Even before I was out of my car, the valets were telling me I was in for a treat. As I’ve learned from experience, the Paramount production of “Rock of Ages” again is a show nothing short of spectacular. At times bitingly funny, it’s a loud, bright, sizzling revue of nostalgia. “Rock of Ages,” despite its neatly tied up resolutions and evident sexism, has hit me with its best shot – all the right notes are there, and you’ll be singing them in your car on the ride home.
(Because of adult language and sexual content, the musical is suggested for ages 14 and older. It runs two and a half hours with one intermission, and mask wearing is strongly encouraged.)
• Regina Belt-Daniels admits to having a shag mullet, attending live rock concerts (with earplugs and her dad’s lighter), and owning one piece of fringed leather in the ’80s. When not acting, directing, teaching, or serving on various theater boards, she can be found traveling with her husband and attending live theater.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Rock of Ages”
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
WHEN: Wednesday through Sunday until May 29
COST: $36 to $79
INFORMATION: 630-896-6666, ParamountAurora.com