Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Rock of Ages
Mesa Encore Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of Les Misérables


Max H. Reed, Jacob Selvidge, and Heidi Johnson
Photo by Gayla Smith Photography
Full of plenty of R-rated adult situations, the crowd-pleasing Rock of Ages is about as far away from classic, family-friendly musicals such as The Sound of Music and Oklahoma! as you can get. While it has a score that includes some of the best-known pop and rock songs of the 1980s, it also has a fairly predictable plot and stereotypical characters. So, it's best to leave any lofty expectations at the door and just let the sweet story of the romance that blossoms between an innocent boy and a small-town girl as they look for love and fame on L.A.'s Sunset Strip, the hilarity of the material, and the great rock songs, wash over you to get the most enjoyment out of this campy and slightly sordid show. Mesa Encore Theatre's production features talented leads who know how to get the humor and heart out of the material and sure-footed direction along with some impressive creative elements.

Rock of Ages is set in 1987 in Los Angeles. It's the era of big hair and big dreams as Drew, a wannabe rock star, and Sherrie, a hopeful young actress, suffer life's trials, tribulations and setbacks, both romantic and professional. They dream of becoming as big as one of their idols, rock legend Stacee Jaxx, but discover that everything isn't as good as it seems in the glamorous world of rock 'n' roll, including Jaxx. There is also a subplot that focuses on an uptight, greedy German property developer who wants to demolish and rebuild the Sunset Strip, including the Bourbon Room club where Drew works and which is owned by Dennis DuPree and managed by the show's narrator, the lewd, crude, and utterly charming Lonny.

While the script by Chris D'Arienzo is full of campy jokes and a plot with little intrigue, there is a genuine sweetness in the lead romantic duo and all of the supporting characters as well. The score features such rock classics as "Don't Stop Believin'," "Waiting for a Girl Like You" and "Hit Me with Your Best Shot." But, while the songs are familiar, there is also an unevenness in the story and many of the songs are either not heard in their entirety or set in counterpoint against other songs, which shortchanges some of the fun and effectiveness of seeing how the numbers are incorporated into the piece. Fortunately, even with these shortcomings to the makeup of this musical, the show is upbeat, funny, and fast paced with an ending that is satisfying.

The Mesa Encore Theatre cast, under Virginia Olivieri's direction, features Phoenix newcomer Jacob Selvidge and the always solid Heidi Johnson; both demonstrate plenty of charm and spunk but also innocence and vulnerability as the young lovers Drew and Sherri. Their vocal abilities maneuver fairly well around the rock-infused lyrics with some powerful high notes, and they create a couple you root to see end up together, even as they encounter obstacles along the way.

With a perfect sense of playfulness and a large dose of mischief, Max H. Reed makes for a very funny Lonny, who serves as the narrator of the story, and Rick Davis is lovable as bar owner Dennis. He and Bryan N. Stewart, who is superb as rocker Stacee Jaxx, instill their characters with a "been there, done it" mentality to this pair of laidback stoners. Stewart beautifully and hilariously portrays the lost, self-absorbed, and constantly high rocker who is trying to hold on to his glory days. All three men have good vocal chops and the duet Reed and Davis share, "I Can't Fight This Feeling," is a crowd-pleaser and nicely staged by Olivieri with fun choreography by Katy Callie.

In smaller roles, Todd Corbeil and Jonathan Perry Brown are good playing the German father and son who plan to tear down the Strip while Skylar Ryan is a firecracker as the woman who tries to foil their plans. Heather Fallon is full of warmth, with a rich, soaring voice, as Justice, the owner of a gentlemen's club on the Strip.

This is Olivieri's musical directorial debut, after directing dozens of plays in town, but you'd never know it from the original touches she makes to the show and the fun and energetic performances she gets from her cast. Brent Coatney's set design is great, with a simple and static but effective way to portray the main club and other locations of the story and a wonderful backdrop of the Hollywood Hills. Matt Stetler's lush lighting design features beams of moving light reminiscent of a high octane-rock concert level. Tristan Peterson-Steinert provides solid music direction of both the onstage band and the cast, though the uneven vocal balance in the sound design from Stephen P. Anaya leaves a bit to be desired.

While Rock of Ages has some shortcomings in its script and structure and the lewdness of the story may not appeal to everyone, Mesa Encore Theatre's production features talented leads with good voices and crisp direction. It is an evening of silly, adult, campy fun chock full of great '80s tunes and plenty of humor and a celebration of all things sex, drugs and rock n' roll.

Rock of Ages, through June 3rd, 2018, at Mesa Encore Theatre, Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa AZ. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480-644-6500 or at mesaencoretheatre.com.

Director: Virginia Olivieri
Choreographer: Katy Callie
Music Director: Tristan Peterson-Steinert
Set Design: Brent Coatney
Costume Design: Emily Reeves
Hair/Make-Up Design: Virginia Olivieri
Sound Design: Stephen P. Anaya
Lighting Design: Matt Stetler

Cast: Drew: Jacob Selvidge
Sherrie: Heidi-Liz Johnson
Lonny: Max H. Reed
Stacee Jax: Bryan Stewart
Dennis Dupree: Rick Davis
Hertz: Todd Corbeil
Franz: Jonathan Perry Brown
Regina: Skylar Ryan
Justice: Heather Fallon
Ja'Keith: Sky Donovan
Waitress #1: Sarah Martino
Ensemble: Ashley Rhoads, Haylee Klein, Vanessa Benjamin, Marcus Bellamy, Larah Pawlowski, John Veshi, Nicolas Caglia, Sky Donovan


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