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'Rock of Ages' Book by Chris D'Arienzo with arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp

Presented by More Entertainment/John Hauber at Toronto's Elgin Theatre

Credit: Raph Nogal. Pictured: Dave Comeau as Lonny Barnett/Narrator

Joe Szekeres

If this ‘tubular’ Rock of Ages is any indication of what’s to come theatrically with More Entertainment, then I say: “More, please, More.” This gnarly cast rocked the hell out of the Elgin Theatre on opening night with confident aplomb and unabashed enjoyment. (It’s the eighties! I haven’t seen the words ‘tubular’ and ‘gnarly’ in a long time)

Who really cares if Chris D’Arienzo’s book of this jukebox musical built from some of the rock classics of the 1980s might seem a tad silly and out of date for the twenty-first century?

Really, I don’t care about that at all.

There are no great messages to analyze or cogitate over in this ‘Rock of Ages’. A couple of modern Toronto references and a piercing jab at former Toronto mayor, John Tory, brought much laughter which is one of the points of the show.

Remember, ‘Rock of Ages’ is a jukebox musical. The songs are the primary focus. Go and have some fun and relive those classics that did feel ‘just like paradise’, according to Director J.P. Gedeon’s Director’s Programme Note.

Two gentle reminders: this ‘Rock’ is not meant for young, impressionable children. Let’s not forget it was the 1980s with a lot of liberation regarding all things cultural and sexual. Context is also of extreme importance regarding this production. The 80s were times of freedom to be who you were and what you wanted. Keep this in mind as some human behaviour staged in this production can/could/might/would be viewed differently in the #metoo world.

The year is 1987. Narrator Lonny Barnett (Dave Comeau) breaks the fourth wall (as do a few others during the show) and sets the traditional girl meets boy story. We are in a seedy area on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood in The Bourbon Room, a bar/nightclub, owned by Dennis Dupree (Kent Sheridan) and managed by Lonny. The bar has seen better days as has Dennis. Aspiring rocker Drew Boley (Trevor Coll) works as a busboy in the Bourbon Room. Drew falls head over heels for Sherrie Christian (AJ Bridel) newly arrived in Hollywood from Kansas. She wants to make it big as a film actress. Drew convinces Dennis to hire Sherrie as a waitress for the club.

German developers Hertz Kleinman and his son Fritz (Larry Mannell and Tyler Pearse) persuade the LA mayor (Jeremy Lapalme) to bulldoze this area of West Hollywood and clean up the ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ and make this area of town clean living much to the anger of city planner Regina (Steffi Didomenicantonio). When Dennis learns the Bourbon Room will be part of this razing to the ground, he invites rock star Stacee Jaxx (Jonathan Cullen) and his band Arsenal to perform. Stacee just announced he is venturing out on his own. Dennis believes this final show will generate money.

A decision is made whereby Drew will open the set for Stacee, but things don’t turn out as planned when Drew learns of a tryst involving Sherrie and Stacee. Record producer Ja’Keith (Jeff Madden) hears Drew perform the opening set and believes Drew should take over for Stacee.

Plot action flies by quickly and you’ll have to pay close attention to what happens.

But it’s all part of this spectacular retro trip to the past. It was tremendous fun not only watching what was happening on the stage but also seeing (and hearing) what was being shouted from the audience.

My eyes kept moving quickly around the set as I tried to pick up as much as I could visually. Ellie Koffman’s selection of primo costume designs to Erroll Reinart and Narda McCarroll’s stellar neon and laser lights are spectacular. Nick Blais’ multi-tiered set design with matching staircases left and right is appropriately set centre stage. Simon Clemo’s projected video designs were another part of the visual treat from an audience perspective. Hello, Max Headroom. I haven't seen you in a long time.

Periodically, John Lott’s sound design needed some necessary tweaking to hear the spoken dialogue. During several ensemble numbers where there was heavy electric guitar accompaniment, some of the song lyrics were drowned. Personally, that was not a big issue for me. It can be forgiven as those of us who grew up with these songs knew the words anyway.

Sean Cheesman’s electrically vibrant choreography keeps the show pulsating. It’s one of the highlights of the show. Mark Camilleri’s music direction is top-notch. I was impressed with many of Ethan Popp’s arrangements and orchestrations. Two of them come to my mind: ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ and ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’. The Act Two opening with ‘The Final Countdown/We Built This City’ blew the roof off the Elgin Theatre vocally and visually with the dance number. Spectacular indeed.

Director J. P. Gedeon wonderfully captures this bygone 80s era with magical panache in style and action. I couldn’t stop smiling for the entire show, so I must thank J.P. for this proverbial trip down memory lane.

And what a sultry and ‘hawt’ ensemble cast of artists he has assembled which is another reason to see the show. The dancers perform incredible backflips combined with suggestive sexy movements that might just leave future audiences wanting to cool themselves off later.

Dave Comeau’s Lonny Barnett mightily grabbed my attention at the top of the show. He exudes natural confidence in wanting to tell a story as the Narrator. As the gravelly-voiced, Sam Elliott look-alike regal owner of The Bourbon Room, Kent Sheridan’s presence grandly hovers as Dennis Dupree even when he is not in the scene. Jonathan Cullen’s bad-boy sans-shirted Stacee Jaxx may be the steamy boy toy at the beginning, but as Shakespeare once wrote: “All that glisters is not gold/Often that have you been told.”. Louise Camilleri is a big-hearted welcoming entrepreneur/madam of the nearby Venus ‘gentleman’s club’.

Steffi DiDomenicantonio’s Regina (as in the capital city of Saskatchewan) is a dynamite force to be reckoned with as the City Planner. And she’s also a hell of a dancer too. Larry Mannel and Tyler Pearse are a hilarious Mutt and Jeff father and son who ironically and amusingly believe it is their job to clean up West Hollywood. Jeff Madden’s suave blond-headed record producer Ja’Keith is a terrific throwback reminder of the Miami Vice television show.

Trevor Coll and AJ Bridel’s vocal numbers soar past the roof of the Elgin Theatre. As central characters Drew Boley and Sherrie Christian, they remain in continued harmonious synchronicity in their performances and vocal delivery. It’s almost as if they can just sense what the other is thinking and feeling.

Final Comments: In his Director’s Note, Gedeon once again speaks about the transformational and healing power of rock, the thrilling power of theatre and the binding power of community.

We need ‘Rock of Ages’ right now.

Allow it to bring a smile to your face.

Go see it.

Running time: approximately two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

‘Rock of Ages’ runs until May 20 at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street. To purchase tickets online, visit moreentertainmentgroup.com or call the Box Office at (416) 314-2901.

MORE ENTERTAINMENT AND JOHN HAUBER presents
ROCK OF AGES Book by Chris D’Arienzo with arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp

Directed by JP Gedeon
Music Direction by Mark Camilleri
Choreography by Sean Cheesman
Set Design: Nick Blais
Lighting Design: Erroll Reinart and Narda McCarroll
Sound Design: John Lott
Video Design: Simon Clemo
Costume Design: Ellie Koffman
Production Stage Manager: Matthew Macinnis

Performers: AJ Bridel, Trevor Coll, Louise Camilleri, Dave Comeau, Jonathan Cullen, Saphire Demitro, Steffi Didomenicantonio, Jeremy LaPalme, Jeff Madden, Larry Mannel, Tyler Pearse, Kent Sheridan, Joey Arrigo, Evan Taylor Benyacar, Karly Bon, Maeve Cosgriffe, Tiffany Derriveau, Gabi Epstein, Paige Foskett, Will Jeffs, Taran Kim, Lakota Knuckle, Kae Kae Lee, Jordan Joseph Mah, Alana Randall, Conor Scully, Adam Sergison, Kristi Woods.

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