Somewhere in an alternate universe, there’s a Susannah who instead of thrusting mostly unsolicited critical opinions upon her local, theatre-loving audience, she hurls power ballads (and herself) upon a gaggle of drooling groupies. Somewhere (that is most definitely not here nor now) she isn’t a self-appointed princess, but rather a badass, reprobate Rock Star whose talent and mass appeal catapult her to the top of the charts (briefly) and the backseats of limos (even more briefly). However, for this plane of existence, at least for the time being, such Rock and Roll fantasies must be played out by others on the stage for her. Palo Alto Player’s Rock of Ages had the chance to be just such a dreamy trip through 80’s rock nostalgia, but unfortunately, it came off more like this wannabe Punk Rock Princess’ attempt at rocking out during her commute, than a polished production.
Let’s start with the fundamental issue of this show (and shows like it). The show’s structure is more challenging at its core than one might initially observe. Sure you have a compellation of songs that automatically appeal to a certain demographic (built in audience!), songs that have already proven popular (with an expectation set by the original rock voices), but underneath the big hair and tight leather pants, the songs of Poison, Pat Benatar, Whitesnake, Jon Bon Jovi and the like take incredible range, power and pitch, not to mention stamina for days, to perform. We make fun of perhaps the weak lyrical content (and certainly the glorious fashion choices) of this era’s musical idols, but contrary to popular belief, the 80s rock ballads are NOT easy to sing. Combine that with all the pageantry, choreography and comic timing required to appease a post-Hamilton musical theater crowd and you have a significant prescription to fill. It’s a musical about Rock and therein lies a nearly impossible Venn diagram – a show that lies securely in the infinitesimal sliver of overlap. It’s simultaneously new and old and it doesn’t take itself seriously, but it must take the musical component seriously if it wants to win over the crowd.
With this immense challenge laid out (heh, heh I said laid) before them, it was immediately apparent the cast wasn’t 100% up to it, at least not that evening. Opening night was undeniably rough – pitchy throughout, unfocused and low energy in parts. I can easily forgive a few stray notes and some breathing issues if the acting makes up for it, but in many places while ready to forgive, I didn’t get enough entertainment of any kind to balance out what I felt was musically lacking. While I very much enjoyed the Broadway touring version of this play several years ago (and admittedly the bar was consequently set quite high) I just wasn’t feeling this production. Not unlike the show American Idiot, I largely thought I’d prefer to see the original bands perform these songs, rather than listen to the musical theater take on them. I should have liked this show more, and I can only hope that voices were just tired and that a few days of rest will elevate this to the level I think the show deserves and certainly this cast is capable of.
This cast. It’s a hard-working ensemble and they sounded great together for the big finales, but they were required to do a lot of things, change a lot of costumes, play lots of characters, and it felt as though it was just too much in many cases. There seemed to be an awful lot of rush, stiffness and overall lack of chemistry across the board. Too much concentration on the technical execution of moves and lines and not enough emotional connection. They weren’t having enough fun yet with it and that uncomfortable edge showed. It was like the two times in my life I’ve actively tried to be sexy… I can walk through the motions, but ultimately, you’re getting Lucille Ball not Selma Hayek. It appeared a case of double threat pegs forced into triple threat holes. Wait… that didn’t’ come out right. What I meant was while some choices (and risks) were made and indeed worked, overall this show felt too big for this stage to handle and in many places too big for this cast.
Topping the list though for most unfortunate were the actor mics. Almost the entire show was garbled. A muffled, off, and almost echoey quality had me grimacing in frustrated anguish. If I hadn’t known just about every word to the songs, I don’t think I would have understood most of the show. I believe this is a sound engineer issue and I believe this can be fixed, so it may not be as big a detriment to enjoyment later on, but boy was it annoying on Saturday. It did get me wondering though if the actors were struggling as a result of this technical issue too and if so it certainly could explain the uncharacteristic musical shortcomings.
But there were bright spots in this production to be sure. The live band was fantastic, and the volume and balance were surprisingly fine despite the size and ratio of the stage and/to the house. It could have been a disaster, but instead it was mostly rad.
45 minutes into the first act, Stacee Jaxx makes his appearance and instantly the show got a much-needed injection of something far stronger than any legal substance I’m familiar with. He effortlessly sells his shirtless and terrifically brainless, rock legend swagger with aplomb. He’s a fresh breath of one-track-minded air with musical chops to match his distinct, well-crafted character. He successfully brought three dimensions to a two-dimensional dude. He also wins the prize for eliciting an audible gasp from me for a totally unexpected “dance” move in the second act. His “Wanted” number was a standout and if it hadn’t been for him, the show would have most certainly risked an intermission departure.
Next to Stacee, the character of Lonny was the next most entertaining and prepared of the cast. He had a clear grasp of the camp and kitsch required for this show and he felt the most consistent. He navigated his narrator role and adlibbed with the audience well, creating an amusing and much needed rapport with us.
Rounding out the good, there’s some clever and well-executed choreography which was pleasing, and the set and props (wine coolers!) were legitimately outstanding. Lights which could have been super obnoxious were kept at an appreciated level befitting theater with a light concert flair. Projections added a layer of fun, but I did have trouble seeing them from house right. There were some phenomenal costuming choices too (how fun must that have been!?) though some seemed more practical and modest than perhaps period accurate.
Cursed with trying too hard in some places and not hard enough in others, it was a struggle to find Rock of Ages rhythm to rock out to this time. With strong potential to be an enjoyable rock and stroll down memory lane (and a gloriously camp, fist-pumping, head-banging, back-stage-pass kind of one at that) I was sadly, left flat. With all this show’s cons, the pros did still seduce me. Significantly better than the movie, and with the definite promise of improvement as the show gels, I’m comfortable bestowing a 3 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara. Rock of Ages plays through May 13th at the Lucie Stern Center in Palo Alto.