As the song goes ‘We Built This City On Rock and Roll’ but, for new musical Rock of Ages, it proves to be a flimsy foundation.
A tribute to the big-haired 80s rock power ballads, Rock of Ages lands at the Shaftesbury Theatre fresh from success on Broadway. The show, while having a loose plot line about a threat to a Hollywood club earmarked for redevelopment and its cleaner who has dreams of becoming a rock star, also turns into a parody of the musical genre. Characters frequently address the audience and mock the conventions of traditional musical theatre. There’s potential here for a real satirical look at musicals but sadly the show never really progresses beyond a lively compilation show.
This duality hands the reviewer something of a quandary, to review the construction of the show, a show that never takes it self seriously, or the performances.
It’s more of a quandary than normal as the two elements, though of course interlinked, are at polar opposites.
Let us tackle the more successful side first. There’s no doubt that the producers have assembled a cast of great skill and boundless enthusiasm. Despite their more conventional musical theatre pedigree, the company convince as authentic rockers, belting out the material with impressive power and energy.
Despite the star billing of Shayne Ward and Justin Lee Collins, neither are the real stars of this show. Although both turn in impressive performances, and both displaying surprising comic timing, their roles are little more than support acts. Oliver Tompsett as wannabe rock god Drew sings up a storm though the burgeoning relationship with reluctant stripper Sherrie (Amy Pemberton) never really convinces.
There’s also strong vocals from Jodie Jacobs as protestor Regina and Rachel McFarlane’s Mother. Holding the show together and providing an ironic look at the format is barworker turnered narrator Lonny, played with delicious irony by Simon Lipkin. A strong ensemble and onstage band provide the much-needed musical power to rock the Shaftesbury. The dance numbers are suitably energetic and the cast are obviously having fun with the material.
Sadly it is the material that lets the production down. While Chris D’Arienzo’s book attempts to poke fun at musicals, it never manages to fully succeed. Characters are two-dimensional at best and the plot never fully engages, instead being nothing more than a vehicle on which to hang the music. At one point Lonny says he trained to be in a show looking at emotions and character development but instead is in a show singing Whitesnake numbers – and he hits the nail on the head exactly. While you don’t go to a show like Rock of Ages for Chekhovian drama, you do need characters you can at least care for; otherwise you are only watching a tribute concert, however well performed.
There are some ingenious touches to the show and a real party atmosphere in the theatre but, however much you admire the talent on stage, it’s hard to see this show surviving long in the current economic environment of a competitive West End market.
For those seeking an antidote to the sugariness of Glee, the rock finale of Don’t Stop Believin’ may provide a long-haired antithesis but every rose has its thorn and for Rock of Ages it will take more than power ballads to save this show.
Please note: This is a review of a preview performance on 7 September.