Sunday, March 13, 2016

ROCK OF AGES Canberra Philharmonic

Rock of Ages

Book by Chris D'Arienzo. Arrangement and orchestration by Etan Popp.Director. Jim McMullen. Musical Director. Max Gambale. Choreographer. Rachel Thornton. Designed by Ian Croker and Jim McMullen. Canberra Philharmonic Society. By arrangement with Origin Theatrical on behalf of Samuel French. Ltd. Erindale Theatre. March 2 - 19. 2016

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins 

I have often commented on the high standard of musical theatre in the National Capital. Under Jim McMullen’s lively, tight and dynamic direction, Philo’s latest offering is no exception. It’s hot and it rocks. It’s Rock of Ages, the 80s tribute/send up musical by ChrisD’Arienzo and Ethan Popp. It’s wild. It’s anarchic. It’s sexy and it’s ear-splitting fantastic. It takes us back to those heady days of wild hair,loud sounds, and heavy beats of bands like Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Queen and Kiss, It was the age of hard rock and under Max Gambale’s musical direction his band thunders out the sounds of a time when sex, drugs and rock ’n roll blasted their way into the hearts, minds and bodies of a new generation. It was the coming of age time of GenX and they were here to party.
Although the music pays homage to the great sound of the 80s and Philo’s production rocks with the energy exploding force of the time, the plot remains traditional. Boy (Dave Smith) meets girl (Emma McCormack). Boy loses girl. Boy finds girl and wannabe rock star Drew and wannabe actor Sherie live happily ever after, after some rough times along the way. And of course there’s the greedy developer, Hertz Klinemann, and his gawkish son Franz (Hayden Crossweller), intent on demolishing the entire Strip along with its favourite small club music venue, the Bourbon Bar, run by the leathery booze weathered Dennis Dupree (Ian Croker). Through it all snakes the epitome of decadent and arrogant Rock stardom, Stacee Jaxx (Will Huang) on a collision course to obscurity. It’s a well-worn musical formula of love and greed and the search for one’s true self in the glitzy glam, delusionary world of fame and failure. Philo tells it with panache, colour, comedy and the explosive sound of the age.

Emma McCormack as Sherie and Dave Smith as Wolfgang
von Colt and the Ensemble in Philo's Rock of Ages
Photo by Pat Gallagher

It makes a refreshing change to see a musical that is not from the Lloyd-Webber collection or even the stunning Sondheim oeuvre, however successful these musical productions have been in Canberra and at The Q. Without the talent that drives this production, Rock of Ages would be nothing more than a tiny pebble buried beneath the sand.  Director McMullen, musical director Gambale and choreographer Rachel Thornton have inspired their performers, musicians and dancers with the spirit of this age of wild abandon. There are moments of crazed hard rock (I Wanna Rock) with Drew and the Ensemble and tender poignancy (The Search is Over) with Drew, Sherie and the Ensemble. On Croker and McMullen’s Broadway look set and under Liam Ashton, Eclipse lighting and sound’s electric pumped disco/rock lighting design, the production on the Erindale Theatre stage dazzles with a professional gloss.
Tim Stiles as Lonny Barnett with the Ensemble in Rock of Ages
Photo by Pat Gallagher

Although a nominally amateur production, in that the performers largely hold down daytime jobs and are not paid Equity rates, there are performances on this stage that could hold their own on any professional stage. Tim Stiles’ Narrator, Lonny Barnett, sets the scene with charismatic largess, breaking the fourth wall and luring his audience in to an experience they will never forget. Love interests Smith and McCormack instantly endear themselves to an audience with their naive, innocent and awkward vulnerability.Will Huang’s Stacee is a triumph of impersonation, the perfectly personified creation of the debauched and decadent rock idol. Shell Tully’s Justice Charlier, the Venus Club’s manager with her Siren’s voice of sensual Soul is the very Madam of seduction. Hayden Crossweller reprises his comic talents that we saw in the Q Theatre’s production of Grease. And Ian Croker is the owner of the Bourbon Bar with access to the bar. That is inspired casting and Croker plays it to his usual perfection.

While singling out certain performers, this production is clearly an Ensemble piece with strong performances supported by outstanding musicians, fiery choreography and finely tuned direction. Above all, Rock of Ages explodes with pure 80s inspired fun, and with the contagious music of the time still ringing in our ears, we leave another triumphant production from the team that brought audiences Cabaret, Evita and Little Shop of Horrors.  And for something completely different, audiences will have the opportunity to travel back in time, when Philo brings you the Cole Porter classic, Anything Goes later in the year. It is obvious that Canberra’s long standing musical theatre company is on a roll.