When you walk into a show and see a live band on stage, you know something good is going to happen. And the very first thing you see at Paramount’s Rock of Ages is the raised stage that will house the 5-piece rock band that is going to provide the soundtrack for the evening. Drums (Jim Widlowski), bass (Janis Wallin), keys (Kara Keselring), Lead (Dan Peters) and Guitar (Scott Tipping). These local pros that you’ve probably seen in their individual projects around town can do exactly what you need to get this rock musical off ground. And they all killed it throughout the performance. Kudos to the band.
Rock of Ages is one of those shows that just shouldn’t work and sometimes doesn’t regardless of the talent of the performers, but in the hands of director Amber Mak you will have “nothing but a good time”. This very silly jukebox musical homage to the worst excesses of ‘80s rock with its bare-bones love story and plot with almost too much going on lives and dies on the enthusiasm of its performers. Every single human being on the Paramount stage was there with the enthusiasm of a rabid hamster on crack from the moment they hit the stage until the final chorus of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Nobody took a single second of it seriously and that made this silly show work better than I have ever seen it work. Even the moments that are often played sweet or with pathos were played as comedy here and you just start laughing from the beginning and keep laughing throughout. Some of the improv business in this production was the best I’ve seen right down to name checking Aurora, misspelling Arsenal on a marquee and reading from “Musicals for Dummies” to cover a costume change.
You need a strong Lonny as your narrator and Shea Coffman is absolutely hilarious in the role while rocking a heinous hair cut (ok, super bad wig), ‘stache and short shorts. The look was spot on perfect circa 1986 (I have pics of my HS pals to prove it) and he was absolutely fantastic at breaking the 4th wall. And for those of you who have seen this before, the often super awkward “I Can’t Fight this Feeling” between Lonny and Dennis (Karl Hamilton) was 1000% not in this version and boy do both of these dudes have pipes. The singing was absolutely fantastic every time either of them opened their mouths and the scene was comedic gold. And honestly, Hamilton is channeling the spirit of 1000 bar owners in his role, too. You feel like you’ve met that guy, especially if you’ve ever tried to book a gig. He was possibly the only thing like a straight man in the whole show other than the equally fabulous Melody A. Betts as Justice.
The usually thankless task of playing our ingenues fell to Taylor Ditoya (Sherrie) and Kieran McCabe (Drew) and they went for the comedy. Their love story is as superficial as this entire show, and they played the surface perfectly while gearing up for some incredible big numbers that require big voices.
McCabe was glorious singing covers of Steve Perry and Foreigner which are blisteringly high and notoriously hard to sing well. Ditoya was clearly also great, which you could only hear in her higher register because she got screwed by the sound guy somehow and we lost all midrange and low notes while she was overpowered by the on-stage band. This should never happen. It shouldn’t happen at a rock show and it doubly shouldn’t happen in a stage musical and it is firmly on the sound guys. There was also one of the ensemble whose headset was entirely off during his sung section (this may have been a malfunctioning headset) and we kept losing bits of the Reporter (Shantel Cribbs) as well. This show is plagued with sound issues that I hope they straighten out because some of their great cast are being very, very badly served. Start by turning down the band. They’re great, we want to hear them, but they shouldn’t overpower the singers.
Franz (Nick Druzbanski) and Hertz (Michael Ehlers) hammed up every second of their parts as Reluctant Bad Guy and Bad Guy while Carisa Gonzalez roused the rabble with the best of them as Regina. Their parts, which can be the boring part of the show, were a delight and you looked forward to them showing up, particularly Druzbanski who has wicked comedy chops. They all, again, have terrific voices.
The show also needs a strong Stacee Jax, and Josh Scholl delivered sleaze with a side of narcissism in the role. He was very funny as well, but was another person who was underserved by the sound guys in several of his songs, particularly “Renegade”. His voice just sort of disappeared into the overpowering midrange on the guitars and keys in places and it was clear he was singing the hell out of it, but we were missing nuance if he could be heard at all.
And Melody A. Betts as Justice slew her entire part and delivered the only true pathos of the night even amid all the clowning when she and her girls did “Shadows of the Night” with Sherrie’s “Harden my Heart.” That whole section was glorious with some of the best singing and harmonies in the show.
Every person with a speaking role in this was amazing. Every dancer brought it every second they were on stage. The band killed. The set and lighting design was incredible. The costumes were fantastic and era-appropriate other than the bad wigs on everyone but the principals. Decent wigs aren’t that expensive and there’s no reason people should look like they’re wearing a dead muskrat on their head when everything else is so fabulous.
I hope they fix the sound issues because this show is absolutely great. You should go see it at once. The cast’s enthusiasm is such that I guarantee you’ll walk out singing some of the songs even if, like me, you were listening to Eurythmics, Kate Bush and The Cure during the 1980s.
Photos by Liz Lauren for the Paramount.
Tickets are available at the Paramount Box Office.