CEDAR RAPIDS — “Rock of Ages” was so much more fun than I remembered.
The national tour of the musical that stormed Broadway in 2009 hit the Paramount stage with its best shot Thursday night (5/23/13). It took a wildly cheering sold-out crowd on a 2-1/2 hour wild ride back in time, when every day was Halloween in the flashy, trashy 1980s.
I saw the show in Des Moines in April 2011, and while my archived review indicates that I liked it, I didn’t love it as much as I loved last night’s production.
I thought perhaps the difference was having an Eastern Iowa native and University of Northern Iowa alum in a lead role, with Monticello grad Jacob Smith, 30, strutting through nightclub owner/stoner Dennis Dupree. However, the 2011 tour had Dubuque native/UNI grad Travis Walker in the flamboyant featured role of Franz.
So what made this production so much better? Maybe the Paramount’s more intimate, ornate 1,700-seat venue framed it better than the larger, more modern 2,735-seat Civic Center in Des Moines. I don’t know. I felt much closer to the action last night, but shows always feel special in Des Moines, too.
I think it comes down to energy. If the 2011 production possessed the same kind of electricity as last night’s ensemble, I would have remembered it more fondly and would have been more eager to see it again.
I can probably count on one hand the number of shows I really want to see again. Imagine my surprise when I was totally blown away by last night’s show. I didn’t see that coming.
I loved everything about it. The music, the band, the strong principal actors, the high-kicking ensemble, the clothing, the hair, the wigs and makeup, but above all, the story.
Unlike other musicals built around the popular sounds of a band or an era, nothing feels contrived about “Rock of Ages.” This is one show that — refreshingly — feels like the story came first and the songs were chosen to fit, enhance and elevate the action, instead of vice versa.
I also think I liked the naivete of last night’s lead actor, Dominique Scott, better than “American Idol” star Constantine Maroulis in the role of Drew, the Detroit native working as a barback in Dupree’s seedy Sunset Strip club, The Bourbon Room. Maroulis is by far a better singer and exudes exotic sensuality, but Scott seems more like the shy boy-next-door dreaming of being a rock star, while slinging trash bags filled with vomit and writing dippy lyrics.
Shannon Mullen was infinitely adorable and sad as Sherrie, the Kansas innocent who steps off the bus in Hollywood hoping to land in a movie, but instead, lands in a downward spiral from Bourbon Room waitress to fading rock-star’s one-night-stand to pole-bumping lap dancer (Sherrie never quite got the hang of the pole, but her slutty twisted sisters did, indeed.)
It’s the classic story of boy meets girl, boy declares friendship instead of love, dreams are dashed then walk hand-in-hand in a new direction, set to a glam rock/metal soundtrack from Styx, Poison, Bon Jovi, Pat Benetar, Journey and more. Sherrie and Drew’s dating drama plays out against the demolition drama of zealots who want to tear down the city built on rock and roll and make the Sunset Strip respectable, in the way Times Square blossomed from seedy degradation to a tourist mecca wrapped in neon lights.
“Rock of Ages” is a costume designer’s dream, a sort of modern-day Renaissance faire of stock characters — the punk with a mohawk, the KISS wannabe, the wenches clad more scantily than Madonna, the acid-washed jeans, the sparkly T-shirts and the glittering lame.
The choreography is as incendiary and explosive as the music. Amazingly, for a big burly guy, Smith dances really well, leaping with a grace that belies his macho stature. Offstage, he’s not quite so big and burly, but the way he embodies his larger-than-life persona fills the stage. With a wild wig of nearly waist-length curls, leather fringed vest and bell bottoms, he struts like a young Ted Nugent.
His partner in duets, the ever-present narrator Lonny (played with gusto and gas by Justin Colombo) looks and acts like Jack Black — lewd, crude and hilarious.
The Paramount’s multigenerational crowd embraced every aspect of this rock ‘n’ roll extravaganza, clapping, dancing and screaming louder than the music. The entire evening was nothin’ but a good time, from beginning to end.
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