Sunday, March 20, 2016

Rock of Ages - Canberra Philharmonic Society

Review by John Lombard

A tribute show that stitches together old hits to play on nostalgia should by all rights be a bit of a dud, but Rock of Ages defies the odds to deliver a spectacularly entertaining night of rock.

In a plot that could have been lifted from a Muppet movie, the Hollywood Sunset Strip and its hard living rock and roll scene are under threat by camp German property developers who want to raze the area to make way for condominiums and malls. The locals rally around legendary bar The Bourbon Room in an attempt to save rock and roll itself from the depredations of greedy guys in suits. And while all that is going on, talented hopeful Drew (Dave Smith) is trying to break into the big time while wooing waitress and aspiring actress Sherrie (Emma McCormack).

When we reach the finale and "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey plays, it becomes clear that writer Chris D'Ariuenzo was working backwards from that moment, so of course the story had to involve a small town girl trying to make her way in the lonely world. Drew and Sherrie have a very gentle romance, hindered by their mutual gormlessness more than anything else. Dave Smith's vocals are as impressive as ever and he invests the character with Labrador-like innocence and likeability. Emma meanwhile is fantastic as Sherrie, squeezing every drop of humour out of her part with some nimble physical comedy.

The overall feel of the show is surprisingly gentle: sex, drugs, and rock and roll are all accounted for, but mostly this is just a clean good time. The humour is wry and self-deprecating, with narrator Tim Stiles breaking the fourth wall frequently to comment on the cliches of musical theatre that the show is systematically ticking off. This is a mass market musical with no rough edges, but fortunately the music is so amazing that it is impossible not to enjoy the show with a grin. The cast are having a ball, feeding off the love and nostalgia of the audience to give stellar performances.

Tim Stiles as the narrator/roadie/plot wizard is playing the part he was born to play, revving the engine of the show from the very start and never letting up. Ian Croker is well-cast as the grizzled, slightly weary owner of the Bourbon Room, and is tender and paternal to the enthusiastic youngsters who come to his bar to rock out. Anita Davenport has a full arc as sweet-natured businesswoman who rediscovers her activist and Deadhead roots, and has a sweet romance with Hayden Croswaller's hilariously fey German. But overall the cast are great, with the ensemble showing tremendous enthusiasm for the show.

But Will Huang must be singled out for special praise for his amazing incarnation of oversexed rock God Stacee Jaxx. Jaxx gets his comeuppance surprisingly early in the show and then lingers to show the dark side of the rock and roll life. However Huang's characterisation is so spot-on and his performance so likeable that we end up rooting for him. Huang attracted not only laughs but a full gamut of titters, chortles and guffaws, from his entrance lathered in the hands of attentive girls to his final exit decked out in full mariachi gear.

Much like pop tribute show Back to the 80s, there is a hint of acceptance that life is sometimes not what you planned it to be. On the principle that most of the audience who actually lived through the 80s did not go on to make it in rock, the leads never quite find the glory that set out for, but achieve a humbler kind of happiness. But the ride can still be fun, especially when you have some great rock blaring on the stereo. Director Jim McMullen nails it: my face melted.