‘Extraordinary Cast’ powers Pittsburgh CLO’s ‘Rock of Ages’

By July 25, 2019 No Comments

Ace Young in “Rock of Ages” (Photo: Matt Polk)

By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic

I gotta tell you something. When it comes to music I hate, 1980’s rock is right up there with Wagnerian opera. So I can’t say I was particularly eager to catch Pittsburgh CLO’s latest production Rock of Ages.

It’s a “jukebox musical” a.k.a. a show built around existing songs usually belonging to one writer/writing team (Leiber & Stoller) or one performer (Elvis Presley). But with Rock of Ages it’s music from 1980’s glam metal bands: Poison, Styx, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, Foreigner and several more I’ve never heard of.

Opening on Broadway in 2009, it was a huge hit and played for nearly six years. Then, 2012 brought a movie version which – to be diplomatic about it – was considerably less popular. There’s even a 10-year anniversary production headed back to New York. (Fun fact – When the show’s original creators tried to get the rights to Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages” the band denied them. But thanks to the show’s success, they’re allowing their song to be included in this incoming Broadway version.)

Rock of Ages continues through July 28. Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, Downtown. 412/456-6666.

God, I’ve just thought more about rock music in the last few paragraphs than I have in the past 40 years. And I guess I’d be pissed if I haven’t had so much damn fun at the CLO production.

With a jukebox musical the script is usually the weakest part (since it exists only to service the music) but Chris D’Arienzo has written a hugely entertaining and legitimately funny book. The plot concerns a legendary rock club in L.A. in danger of being torn down and two kids who’ve come to the coast with dreams of stardom and destined to fall in love. Plus we’ve got an aging rocker on his way out, a local activist trying to save the club and lots and lots of colorful supporting characters.

D’Arienzo, blessedly, doesn’t take any of it seriously. While never mocking the music, he satirizes some of the excesses of both the 1980s and, surprisingly, musical theater as well. A worker at the bar, Lonny, is the narrator welcoming us into the show and continually reminding us it’s only a piece of musical theater; making this into something that’s cleverly meta and outrageously funny.

I had so much fun I’d probably welcome seeing it several more times, except …

Jean Kerr (playwright and wife of famed New York reviewer Walter Kerr) once said that being a theater critic would be ideal … if it weren’t for having to see all those damned plays. For me personally, Rock of Ages would be a great night at the theater, if it weren’t for having to listen to all that 80’s rock.

But you know what? There’s a reason the show ran six years – there are lots of folks who love this music and they were sitting around me or in the back of the house or up in the balcony. I heard them singing along whenever a particularly favorite tune popped up during the show.

It was a wildly enthusiastic audience giving back to these performers just a fraction of the enormously uplifting energy coming at them from this high-voltage, muscular production.

Scott Weinstein directs, Stephanie Klemons choreographs and James Cunningham music directs an extraordinary, blistering cast.

Nick Druzbanski is Lonny and works the crowd with a showmanship that could only have been developed via several previous showbiz lifetimes. Ace Young has a field day slithering around the stage as a slimy rocker while Gene Weygandt, Jeffrey Howell and Nathan Salstone mercilessly wring out every last laugh from their looney tunes characters. Justin Matthew Sargent and Tess Soltau play up all the comedy of their dopey love story and could probably scorch the hair off your head with voices of frightening power while Aurelia Williams, Tiffany Tatreau and J. Cameron Barnett add plenty of fun and flash. A big salute to the powerhouse band; Robert Neumeyer, Dan Peters, John Anthony, Paul Thompson and RJ Heid.

There were some sound issues the night of saw the show but Beowulf Boritt’s set, costumes from Gregory Gale and Gail Baldoni and, especially, Paul Miller’s eye-popping lighting ratchet up the comedy and dazzle level as well.

I may never buy the cast album, but I sure am glad I got to see Rock of Ages.

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