"Rock of Ages" is a blast despite a few letdowns

Great tunes and a rockstar cast and band outweigh weaker elements.

The Arts Club Theatre knows how to rock, and they’re currently heating things up at the Granville Island Stage with the Tony Award-nominated musical, Rock of Ages, directed and choreographed by Peter Jorgenson. And while the show isn’t the strongest effort I’ve seen from Arts Club Theatre, it’s still a pretty good time.

The show takes crowd-pleasing rock songs from the 80’s and infuses them into a two-act musical, thanks to book writer and lyricist Chris D’Arienzo. The great thing is that rocking out to these songs is a blast and the show’s cast and band really know how to kill it. The flip side of the coin is that D’Arienzo’s book is super weak and there are a few issues specific to this particular production that leaves a little to be desired.

The Arts Club's cast of "Rock of Ages". Photo credit: The Arts Club.

The show’s story itself isn’t bad. The relationship between young aspiring rock musician Drew and fresh-off-the-bus actress Sherrie in the city of angels has a lot of potential since the characters are so likeable, thanks especially to actors Kale Penny and Marlie Collins. But D’Ariezno’s book distracts too much from the relationship and doesn’t let Drew and Sherrie’s story flow nicely.

While the parallel plot lines of the impending doom of the show’s central location, the Bourbon Room, due to German businessman Hertz’s hatred of rock and roll, and the struggles of scandalous rock star Stacee Jaxx are interesting enough, they’re not integrated smoothly enough into the script. Near the end of the show, I was quite happy for the show to finally wrap up, as the Drew and Sherrie story had dragged on for so long and I had lost interest.

To make matters worse, the sound quality is very poor in this production. It’s extremely difficult to understand what the actors are singing about, or saying over music and as a result, much of the lyrics and dialogue are lost. Despite the weak book, Rock of Ages can still be an exhilarating experience given the rockin’ beats and potential for some wicked production numbers. The issue with this particular production is that the choreography is not strong and there are many missed opportunities in the show. After having seen the movie version, which was choreographed by Mia Michaels, this production comes across as disappointing.

Furthermore, some of the choreography doesn’t quite work. There’s a number in the second act that depicts a showdown between Bourbon Room supporters and the LAPD. While the concept of having dual facing signs for the cast to switch between sides is clever, it wasn’t clean and came across as confusing.

However, the performances are fabulous. As Sherrie, Marlie Collins really showcases herself as triple-threat machine. Her dynamic vocals, characterization and movement are spectacular. Collin’s romantic counterpart, Kale Penny, possesses a stunningly beautiful voice that has a special angelic quality.

Kale Penny and Marlie Collins are fabulous as the show's leading characters. Photo credit: The Arts Club Theatre.

Katrina Reynolds is sensational in the role of strip club owner Justice, as well as in a number of ensemble roles. As Justice, Reynolds slays it with her thrilling vocals; in her ensemble roles, Reynolds shows off her acting versatility and sense of humour.

The character of German businessman Hertz’s son, Franz, is played by actress Paige Fraser, and audiences who haven’t seen Fraser in action yet are in for quite a treat. As Franz, Fraser is really great. Her characterization, singing and dancing are all on point, including a delightful and acrobatic rendition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot. But Fraser also performs as a member of the ensemble in a few different female character roles, and her acting and dance skills are so strong, there’s no way you would ever suspect this is the same girl who intermittently steps into the role of the geeky Franz. Plus, Fraser really knows how to bust a move and when she’s portraying female ensemble characters, she demonstrates awesome style and rhythm.

Robbie Town and Collins bring sass and sexiness to their roles. Photo credit: The Arts Club Theatre.

As bad boy rocker Stacee Jaxx, sexy Robbie Towns is right on point and provides amazing eye candy. Also worth mentioning is Adrina Ravalli’s energetic and sassy portrayal of a waitress at the Bourbon Room.

One of the show’s highlights is the outstanding performance of Lauren Bowler as Regina, the dedicated supporter against the destruction of the Bourbon Room. The character of Regina could possibly come across as bland and lacklustre alongside the glitzier characters of Stacee Jazz, Drew and Sherrie. A dynamic triple threat performer, Bowler not only brings the character of Regina to life onstage, but knocks her performance out of the park, complimented by her delightful sense of humour. What really makes Bowler’s performance so special is how she brings heart to a character that could be easily forgotten as a side character in the story - an accomplishment that only a truly seasoned musical theatre artist can pull off.

Bustin' a move in character. From left to right: Lauren Bowler, Graham Coffeng and Paige Fraser. Photo credit: The Arts Club Theatre. 

I’m wasn’t a huge fan of the show’s narrator, Lonny (Brett Harris). First of all, I don’t believe the show needs a narrator. The story would be compelling enough on its own, and Lonny’s narration and stage time takes away from the story, especially the Drew and Sherrie plot line. Plus, Lonny comes across as cheesy and annoying. I’m also not sure if Lonny is meant to have an English accent, but I found Harris really difficult to understand, especially given the poor sound quality of the show.

One of the really excellent aspects of the show is the casts’ amazing quick changes. Since the cast is relatively small for this musical, there are a lot of fast costume changes where cast members switch from character to character, and I was very impressed by how well this was done.

At the end of the day, despite a few subpar elements such as the sound quality, choreography and a weak book, Rock of Ages is still a fun musical. It has the essential ingredients needed to make you want to rock out – fun songs, and a talented and energetic cast and band that nails it. The show’s finale is set to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing, and it’s so well done that you’ll almost forget about the slight letdowns along the way.

On a sidenote, before the show, there’s a bizarre video message from Arts Club Theatre’s Artistic Director, Bill Millerd, talking about Billy Elliot, which is a completely different show. I was quite confused by this.

The Arts Club's Rock of Ages runs at the Granville Island Stage until June 30. For tickets and more information, visit the Arts Club Theatre's website