The crowd that came out for the opening of Rock of Ages at the Brooks Atkinson on April 7 could conservatively be termed "well-lit." Not only were flashlights in the shape of mini-cigarette lighters supplied to the customers — the better to streak the sky with, in moments of musical madness — Coors beer was hustled in the aisles at $6 a pop, and executives from all three theatre chains imbibed as if to say, "Drink up!"
You'd think in something called Rock of Ages that Rolling Rock would be available, but no. People with different tastes were directed to a solitary Blue Moon stand elsewhere in the theatre. For all practical purposes, Coors had the concession, and, to keep that thought uppermost in your mind, six different Coors signs littered the set — a sad and seedy little Sunset Strip rock bar called The Bourbon Room, which designer Beowulf Boritt extends invitingly beyond the stage into the audience.
An enthusiastic salute to hard-driving '80s metal is not everybody's cup of Coors, of course. It was entirely possible on opening night to have two-and-a-half hours of songs from the vintage music-video era of the '80s wash over you without recognizing a note, while the person next to you is banging his head back and forth, mouthing the words. The theatre traditionalist is likely to feel he has entered the Twilight Zone. As one asided to me at the half-time — er, intermission — "Is this the end of the world?"
No, but it's another world. (Rock of Ages must have Brooks Atkinson rolling!) And nothing betrayed the schism of the first-nighters more than the symbolic hoisting of the lighters, swaying supportively to and fro with the music. With this particular group, that gesture came off like ill-coordinated lightning bugs colliding in the dark. There seems to be some sort of storyline running along side, and in and out, of the golden oldies of Bon Jovi, Poison, Styx, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Journey, Whitesnake, et al. Book writer Chris D'Arienzo has gone about his task as if he were doing an MTV Mamma Mia!, never interrupting the ebb and flow of replays for long.
[flipbook] As plot would have it, the fabled Bourbon Room is marked for the wrecking ball to make way for a mall, and only a rock benefit can bail the club out. In terms of human development, there's a slight pass at a love story between two wannabe rockers from out of town — Sherrie, as in "Oh, Sherrie" (Amy Spanger), and Drew (ex-"American Idol" contender Constantine Maroulis) — disrupted momentarily by his brief stint in boy band-land and her fling at pole-dancing strip-teasing. Then, there's the other-man complication, Stacee Jaxx (James Carpinello), a sleazy rock icon.
That's all director Kristin Hanggi and choreographer Kelly Devine need to keep the joint jumpin' — and the evening comes to a crashing end just like a chaotic rock concert.
The opening night party was held a few yards east of the theatre at the Edison Ballroom, which has been underused this season as an after-party venue but proved perfect for this occasion because it provided a stage where rock-stars among the first-nighters could perform till dawn's early light if they had a mind to.
Night Ranger (Kelly Keagy, Brad Gillis and Jack Blade) charged the Edison stage first, followed by January Jane (with Maroulis) and, into the a.m., Evolution.
Jim Peterik, who wrote Journey's "The Search Is Over," arrived like a true rocker, with multicolored hair. Jamie & Beverly came via VH1's "Rock of Love Bus."
Others up for the '80s nostalgia were Mark Schoenfeld (who wrote Brooklyn for Broadway), Nikki Blonsky from the "Hairspray" flick, Patrick Wilson, chef Rocco DiSpirito, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (apparently open to new tricks), Noah Emmerich (with his revved-up teenage niece), Michael Urie from "Ugly Betty," Justin Tranter of "Semi-Precious Weapons," producer-actress Tamara Tunie, Max von Essen (looking like Clark Kent in glasses) and Cry-Baby's Elizabeth Stanley (both back from a Xanadu tour) and John Bolton (bound for Goodspeed this summer to test the waters of Lucky Guy with Gary Beach).
Running The Bourbon Room (and, to a large measure, the show) is a character named Lonny — think the Our Town Stage Manager-on-speed — and he is played with humor and energy to spare by a Broadway-bowing Mitchell Jarvis, who did the part when the show switched coasts and opened at New World Stages five months ago. "Lonny's like a post-modern master of ceremonies," Jarvis offered by way of an explanation. "He's an outside eye looking in and commenting on the piece while it's going on. That allows us not to take the piece too seriously, but, at the same time, we don't make fun of ourselves, either. We chose a very fine line, and I think it reaches both the audiences that are theatregoers primarily and the more bridge-and-tunnel crowd that don't come to see a lot of Broadway theatre. It tows a really nice line, and I think we can reach both sides. You really have to feel out your audience from night to night, and it's different every night. That's what's fun about it. It's just really cleverly put together. It's a well-constructed satire."
For a new kid on the Broadway block, Jarvis makes a lot of surprising physical-comedy moves. "I got into all this very late in the game. I was a basketball player growing up, so I bring a lot of my athleticism to my work in the theatre, which is a lot of fun — especially with a role like this. There are really no rules. I create him from the ground floor and kinda really make him me. He's kind of a concoction of all of my favorite pop-culture icons growing up — Will Ferrell, Chris Farley, Jack Black — I bring all my favorites to the table. It's sort of a hot fudge of all those guys."
There have been, he can attest, changes going the two blocks from Off-Broadway to Broadway — "a few more bells and whistles, a little more money, a little better sound design, a larger house" — and, most tellingly, the show kids itself about where it now finds itself: At one point, trying to wrap up Act One, Jarvis steps center stage and consults a book: "Broadway Musical Theatre for Dummies." "That's very much the experience of putting this show together," he admitted, "the blind leading the blind, just a lot of really funny people in a room trying to figure out what this story is. The show doesn't take itself too seriously. It knows what it is. It knows what its place is."
Adam Dannheisser, who plays Jarvis' second-banana, hovers quite heavily over the proceedings in angel drag. What did he die of? "I think hard-living and a soft liver."
He particularly liked the comic sparring he has to do with Jarvis. "It's a joy," he said. "I can't stop loving on Mitch Jarvis. I think he's a brilliant comic actor, and it's a pleasure to work with him every night. I didn't meet him till the Off-Broadway thing. The first day I met him, I thought he was famous because he thinks he's famous." The producers invited Maroulis to do the lift-off edition of Rock of Ages in Los Angeles, but scheduling conflicts shot the deal down. However, the actor said, "When I learned they were coming to New York Off-Broadway, I actually turned down a huge paycheck to do Grease on Broadway in order to take this job Off-Broadway. To create a role as an actor — that's everything to me."
The musical demands that came with the role — while staggering to most mortals — weren't the least intimidating to him because of his particular musical upbringing: "I worshipped this music growing up so I almost developed a mimic for the style. Like the way dancers grow up and into ballerinas and their bodies start to form to that sort of dance style, my voice just grew accustomed to wailing Bon Jovi and Journey. It always sat very high in my voice so it's actually quite comfortable for me up there."
Nor is the music a Chinese water torture test for Carpinello, who plays Maroulis' raunchy romantic rival. "I grew up on this music," he said, "so, to me, if I can sing Bon Jovi on stage in front of people — that's fine. The reactions have been great. I've never been in anything like this. Every single night, the audience goes crazy. It's such a great feeling — to go out there and know people are really enjoying themselves."
It is also great to be back on Broadway. A leg injury right before the opening of Xanadu sidelined him and forced Cheyenne Jackson front and center. "It's a dream. The last situation didn't work out so well so it's really nice to be back. I'm thankful."
Carpinello debuted Off-Broadway as one of the Stupid Kids and on Broadway in John Travolta's star-making part in Saturday Night Fever. The hedonistic and odious Stacee Jaxx is a long way from SNF's Tony Manero, he conceded. In point of fact: "He's kinda like the Stupid Kids character — a guy who thinks he's a big shot and ends up having a lot of problems, but I actually think that I like him a little more than I like being me now, which is a little weird."
As the girl of their tug-of-war, Spanger brings old-fashioned Broadway sheen to the character. "I love that Sherrie's open to the world. It makes her such fun. Whatever situation she's in, she's not jaded. It's all discovery so it's such a pleasure to play her.
"I love working with Constantine. He's great. He's such a pro. And the role is perfectly tailored to his talents. It's so much fun rocking out. I don't get many chances to sing like this. It's really outside the realm of things I've done before."
Her favorite is "Light Up" by Damn Yankees. "I love that song — plus, it's a really beautiful moment in the show, and it's a duet between Constantine and myself."
Vaguely villainous vibes are put out by a Teutonic father-and-song tag-team trying to upgrade the rundown Strip — Hertz (Paul Schoeffler, who twice was Captain Hook to Cathy Rigby's Peter Pan) and Franz (Wesley Taylor, a newcomer to Broadway).
Taylor, who looks twentysomething (if that!), said he started acting "when I was very young. I was four years old when I decided that I was jealous of Macaulay Culkin and I needed to get into the movies. I would bug my mother constantly to take me to auditions, and she refused because she didn't want me growing up crazy." The flamboyantly flighty Franz is not just fun to play, he said — "it's freeing. I've kinda fallen in love with him. First of all, the director has given me such freedom — to make the show a playground, really. I just get to play. Franz is very positive. Everything he does exudes positive energy, and all he really wants to do — what it really comes down to, at the core of his being — is dance and own a candy shop and make people happy. He just wants everyone to be happy around him."
And that includes the audience. "With this show, it is very important to feed off the audience and what they are giving you. The audience feeds information. You learn a lot from them. And I have that great 11-o'clock number, 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot.' I'm so lucky to have my first solo on a Broadway stage be that."
Lauren Molina, who shares the number with him, doesn't hesitate a second to say that "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" happens to be her favorite moment in the show as well: "You just feel so much love in the room. People come, and they escape with this show. There's so much joy and explosive energy and electricity."
With glasses and without cello, it's hard to say that Molina is the same actress who played Johanna in the recent Sweeney Todd. "After that, it's great fun to be so silly and goofy."
A pretty member of the ensemble who does an interviewer bit that sounded like a Mary-Louise Parker spoof, Katherine Tokarz is already four shows deep in her Broadway career (this after Wicked, Kristine in A Chorus Line and White Christmas).
This is the toughest dancing she has done. "From start to finish, there's no let-up," she said, "but, with this music, it doesn't feel like work. Fact is, I feel cool. Generally, I'm not a cool person. I'm a little bit awkward, so, when I'm in front of a rock band doing the moves, I have never felt so cool in my whole life."
Yes, she knows the material: "I was born in '82. One of the songs I remember getting car-sick to. When I was a little kid, I used to get car-sick a lot to the soft-rock songs."
Choreographer Devine credited the cast with doing a crackerjack job of her moves. "They work so hard. They're so fun. They're so game for anything. There's a lot of dancing in the show. They're all pretty fit as it is. I think we have a very sexy cast."
If there is one moment that she is most proud of, it's the "Here I Go Again" that ends Act One. "I think it's pretty impactful seeing everybody in their own individual turmoil," she observed. "It feels strong to me to have the whole cast hitting those moves so hard. It's so in-your-face it feels the most '80s to me, like an army of '80s kids."
Jane Krakowski, who these days hails from a different rock ("30 Rock"), had no problem with the songs. She gleefully crowed, "I know every note of that show. With my generation, when you hear a song as a kid, you're like a sponge. You learn every single word. It's hard not to sing along, isn't it?"
Er, right, Jane.