‘Rock of Ages’ Captures the Music and Decadence of the US in the 1980s

Donovan Hoffer and the cast of “Rock of Ages.” (Liz Lauren)Donovan Hoffer and the cast of “Rock of Ages.” (Liz Lauren)

Sex (a lot of it). Love (the quest for it). Decadence (in abundance). And of course, rock and roll — the driving musical force behind it all.

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That, in brief, suggests the themes at play in “Rock of Ages,” the funky, feverish, hard-driving (and definitely not-for-children) musical that is now storming across the stage of the Mercury Theater. A large, fearless and very talented cast, along with an exceptional band, capture the tumultuous beat of a decidedly “rocky” decade.

The show was written by Chris D’Arienzo and vividly directed by Tommy Novak with terrific music direction by Linda Madonia, dynamic arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp and highly charged choreography by Laura Savage. This unabashedly uncensored musical (which ran from 2009-2015 in its Broadway incarnation) is wild and flashy. And from time to time, it even plays teasingly with the audience as its story unfolds.

The show takes place primarily in the Bourbon Room, a popular club on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, in the late 1980s. And it features two dozen songs originally performed by Styx, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Journey, Twisted Sister, Poison, Speedwagon, Steve Perry and others.

Serving as the Bourbon’s high-energy, fast-talking, often sardonic host/emcee is Lonny (Michael Metcalf), the guy with big hair and plenty of attitude who frequently breaks through “the fourth wall” to make direct connections with the Mercury audience.

But the real star of the show is Drew (David Moreland, an excellent actor with an absolutely sensational voice). Drew is a talented young singer who until now hasn’t made a go of it professionally and is stuck earning a living cleaning the bathroom at the Bourbon.

Enter Sherrie, a pretty young blonde from Kansas (played by Kayla Marie Shipman, a gifted actress/dancer/singer), who has just moved to Hollywood with the hope of starting an acting career. Drew is immediately attracted to her but too shy to fully pursue her, although they clearly connect. And then along comes Stacee Jaxx, (Donovan Hoffer, who deftly captures the egotistical, sexed up and no doubt drug-fueled leader of the hit band Arsenal). Before long he and Sherrie are having wild sex in the Bourbon Room’s bathroom. They are seen by Drew, who is heartbroken. But when he finally performs in the Bourbon Room, he is discovered by a record producer who offers him a contract.

David Moreland and Kayla Shipman in “Rock of Ages.” (Liz Lauren)David Moreland and Kayla Shipman in “Rock of Ages.” (Liz Lauren)

Lost in every way, Sherrie ends up working at a nearby strip club owned by a woman who calls herself Mother (a wonderfully warm and knowing performance by Sharriese Hamilton). Sherrie has a brash and unhappy sexual encounter with Stacee again, and is caught in the act by Drew. And while there is more to come, it will not be revealed here.

Running as a subtext throughout the show is an attempt at urban renewal for the neighborhood that has been planned by a stiff-minded German developer named Hertz (expertly captured by Jeff Diebold) and his reluctant son, Franz (in a hilariously quirky turn by Aaron Davidson), who just wants to return home and open a confectionary. When Hertz announces his plans to demolish the Bourbon Room and its surrounding area in order to rid it of the excesses of “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” he is faced with fearsome opposition from Regina (feisty Veronica Garza), the mayor’s angry city planner.

Throughout, a large chorus of exuberant singers and dancers takes on multiple identities. And the show is expertly enhanced by the work of scenic designer Bob Knute, lighting and digital visual media designer G. “Max” Maxin IV, costume designer Bob Kuhn and sound designer Stefanie M. Senior.

All in all, this is a highly energetic, vividly realized and decidedly uncensored show that thrives in the Mercury’s intimate space. And for those nostalgic enough to crave a visit to a true “rock of ages” moment in history, this is the show to see.

“Rock of Ages” runs through Sept. 10 at the Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave. For tickets visit mercurytheaterchicago.com.

Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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