History has not been kind to the hair-metal era of the late 1980s.
It was a time of leather and strategically ripped denim, of bangles and hoop earrings, of pumping fists and devil horns, of eyeliner and rouge. It was a time when women lusted after men who wore more hairspray, makeup and jewelry than they did. It was a time when Poison, Mötley Crüe, Whitesnake and Warrant ruled the charts, and bands with names like the Bang Tango, Britny Fox, Kix and Faster Pussycat were almost considered cool.
It was a time of glorious cheesiness. It was, to quote a hit of the era, nothin’ but a good time.
So it was just a matter of time before somebody made a hair-metal musical, right?
In theory, it sounds awful. And by all rights, it should be. But the hilarious “Rock of Ages” — a new musical that revels in the cheese of the era, tacking a corny plot to anthems of the era by Whitesnake, Journey, Twisted Sister, Poison, Foreigner, Night Ranger and many others — gets it just right by laughing at itself as hard as its audiences do. It’s not just your typical cheesy off-Broadway musical. It’s your typical cheesy off-Broadway musical on steroids. (Imagine a hair-metal “Mamma Mia.”)
It’s got mullets, bimbos, spandex, a sleazy club owner and wannabe rockers galore. Not cheesy enough? It’s even got “American Idol” castoff Constantine Maroulis in a lead role.
“Let’s set the scene,” he says. “1987, Sunset Strip, lots of big dreams, lots of big guitars, big hair, stripper poles, naked chicks, really funny characters … and two dreamers move to L.A. and try to make it big.”
The plot centers on (you guessed it) a boy, Drew, and a girl, Sherrie, with dreams of making it big in the music business, moving to Hollywood in the late ’80s and working at a rock club on the Sunset Strip (a winking stand-in for the Whisky a Go Go). The two fall for each other, but wait! Starstruck Sherrie has a seedy one-night stand (in the club restroom) with sinister superstar Stacee Jaxx, who then promptly forgets her. Discouraged, she and Drew lose sight of their dreams; she becomes a stripper, he joins a wack rap combo. Then, the club is about to be demolished to make way for condos! All seems lost!
You’ll never guess how it plays out.
And in case the plot gets a little too complicated — which is pretty much an impossibility — a narrator is there to help the story along. And he takes his job very seriously.
“The narrator, it’s an ancient rock-and-roll device used back in the day to involve the crowd,” said Mitchell Jarvis, the mulleted, Jack Black-channeling narrator. “Because a lot of time the music and the lyrics are so complicated that you need that layman’s voice.”
The plot is so filled with winks that everyone in the house is in on the joke. But what really makes the show, believe it or not, is the music. The extroverted nature of the songs translates beautifully to a Broadway setting, and anyone who doesn’t walk out of the theater with respect for the craft of “Here I Go Again” or “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” has no sense of fun. Adding to the ambience, the theater is loaded with concert posters from the era, fake lighters are distributed along with the programs, and — not insignificantly — alcohol is served.
“It’s kind of like the anti-Broadway musical,” says Will Swenson, who steals the show as Stacee Jaxx. “It’s super-interactive with the crowd, people are ordering drinks and singing along with the songs.”
“What we’ve done is taken those ’80s bands and theatricalized them and put them into a musical with a really big plot,” says Kelli Barrett, who plays Sherrie. “Rock and roll for us is the priority. It’s a light show, we’ve got the hazer fog, and we’ve got an amazing band.”
For those reasons and many others, “Rock of Ages” works much better than it should. As Jarvis says, “The magic happens when I put this mullet on and go out there and do my thing.”