By Jay Darcy
It’s a little tricky reviewing a show that (a) started 40 minutes late because of technical difficulties, (b) was stopped shortly into the second act because of technical difficulties, and (c) I had to leave early because we only prepaid for four hours parking (which should have been more than enough). But here I go…
Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical based on hit rock songs from the 1980s, especially glam rock bands like Def Leppard (though, ironically, Def Leppard’s ‘Rock of Ages’ is not included in the musical). Jukebox musicals are hit-and-miss – and more often than not, miss.
The plot is boy-meets-girl with a backstory about a property developer, and a story within that concerning the developer’s son falling in love with the woman leading the protest against the demolition and development. I don’t even know what I’m writing; the secondary story was unnecessary and uninteresting. Whilst the main storyline is generic and obvious, that’s merely a convention of (non-biographical) jukebox musicals; it’s expected – and entertaining enough.
What sets Rock of Ages apart from other jukebox musicals, however, is its breaking of the fourth wall, especially by the semi-narrator, Lonny. The cast interact with the audience, sometimes even breaking out of character, almost presenting Rock of Ages as a play (musical) within a play.
The cast is led by Sam Turrell (Drew) and Gabriella Williams (Sherrie Christian). Turrell possesses some real rock energy. Williams has a lovely voice but I do not feel that it is suited to this kind of rock music. She has previously played Sandy in Grease and Sophie in Mamma Mia!, roles which I imagine she excelled at. She previously played Regina in this tour, and I can imagine that role suiting her voice better than Gabriella.
Now, Regina is played by Stephanie Chandos; Chandos gets the balance between adorable and annoying just right. Her German love interest, Franz Klivemann, is played by David Breeds. His big, gay number is fabulous. His vile father squares up to him; Franz literally rips off his suit to reveal a rainbow leotard, and the stage is lit up with rainbows. It was reminiscent of Heathers’ ‘My Dead Gay Son’ (minus the death).
However, just as he began singing, his mic began to go before switching off completely. He carried on singing but the tech team turned off the stage lights and the cast left the stage. When they returned, they decided to do the scene from the beginning – a bad idea, for it was already 10pm; the show should have finished by now – but one must applaud this fabulous number. Later, Franz reveals that he is not in fact gay – he’s just German! I was reminded of Legally Blonde’s ‘There! Right There!’ (“Gay or European?”).
Vas Konstanti was cartoonishly villainous as Franz’ father, Hertz, and it works. Local legend Kevin Kennedy (Curly Watts in Coronation Street) was hilarious as Dennis Dupree, the owner of the bar. Celebrities are often outshone by their musical theatre-trained counterparts but Kennedy is in this production not because of name recognition but because of sheer talent.
Natalie Winsor was absolutely fabulous as Justice Charlier, the glamorous owner of the Venus stripper club where Sherrie gets a job. The role is criminally underwritten, especially for an actor as talented as Winsor. Winsor owned the stage the second she stepped foot on it, and her powerhouse vocals brought the ceiling down.
There were a couple of understudies on. Reece Duncan played Stacee Jaxx (who is usually played by Cameron Sharp). He was entertaining, and he’s undeniably talented, but he lacked the rockstar energy and devilish gravitas required for the role. Jaxx was, of course, played by Tom Cruise in the film.
But the star of the show was, without an eyeshadow of a doubt, Darius James, who stepped in to play semi-narrator Lonny (who is usually played by Tim Oxbrow). From the very beginning of the first act, Lonny gets the audience on his side, and James outshone everyone else onstage. Hilariously, the act ends with Lonny telling Drew that his back aches from carrying the entire first act on his back!
After Breed’s mic gave way, James’ mic began freaking out as he started singing. Luckily, the crew had a handheld mic on hand so James completed the rest of the song as if he was performing at a rock concert! The end of the number saw Kennedy hide behind the bar and a member of the ensemble, dressed in the same clothing, perform acrobatic skills and cartwheels.
Kennedy then popped back up and pretended to be exhausted. “It went dreadfully wrong when you got that electric lollipop,” he said to Lonny. The pair then broke into laughter, which prompted the audience to do the same. The show suffered some real technical difficulties but the crew did their best to fix them and the cast rolled with it and even made light of the situation.
Later, Lonny told the audience, “The Times gave us two stars… yeah, fuck ’em!” Whilst I am usually against cast and creatives critiquing critics, this self-aware, sardonic comment was hilarious.
James also repeatedly picked on a woman called Alex sat on the front row. He flirted with her throughout the show. At one point, Lonny mentions Alex to Drew, who asks, “Who the hell is Alex?” Lonny then made Drew apologise to her; Turrell broke out of character and spoke with his own English accent. At another point, Lonny asked Alex who she was with, and when he realised she was with her partner, he invited her to his dressing room and told her to bring her partner! Bi energy, we stan.
James was probably so excited to be playing Lonny at press night so I’m absolutely gutted for him that the performance was plagued by technical problems but he shone regardless. I was entirely enthralled. This guy is truly an underrated talent.
We had to leave the show during Hertz’ number – probably the perfect time to escape. But I would have liked to have seen the rest of the show.
Rock of Ages is a little hollow but it is beautifully designed and has a roaring score of 80s rock classics. I was not expecting the production to be anything groundbreaking but I was expecting to have fun. However, the 30-minute wait in the cold and 15-minute wait in my seat killed the vibe before the show even began. My friend, Jenna, had taken her boyfriend along because it is one of her favourite films – but sadly she did not enjoy the stage musical.
The production was a little messy and felt a little flat, though I appreciate that might be because of the technical difficulties – but I can only judge the production by what I saw, and what I saw was, perhaps, not worth seeing. I’d love to make a return visit but the tour is billed as a “farewell tour” so that might not be for awhile. What I look more forward to, however, is seeing Darius James onstage again – he rocks.
Rock of Ages runs at Manchester Opera House until March 18 and tours the UK until late June.
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