Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: Performances of “Rock of Ages” at the Bourbon Room in Hollywood have been canceled through April 15th.
The following review is based on the January 12th evening performance of “Rock of Ages” when Marisa Matthews portrayed the lead female role of Sherrie in lieu of Callandra Olivia, who usually plays the part.
When you think of Hollywood, you might be inclined to think of all the vices, for better or worse, that go with it. The streets of Tinseltown are not just unique for the stars emblazoned on them, but an ambiance teeming with (broken) dreams, sex, and, of course, rock ‘n’ roll. If you were to rubber stamp the tantalizing nostalgia of the 1980s on top of all that, when there were nearly no restrictions, then you’ve got the “Rock of Ages” jukebox musical.
The Bourbon Room, named after the central setting in the five-time, Tony-nominated “Rock of Ages,” has been constructed to host a permanent residency of the rip-roaring musical, which initially got its first taste of success at the now closed King King nightclub in 2005 before moving to Off-Broadway for one year and then Broadway for six years and 2,328 performances.
From the moment attendees enter the Bourbon Room, they’re transported to the heyday of glam rock. Gold records and guitars plaster the walls; a hostess (Maeve Riley) standing at the top of the stairs and across a majestic bar may ask you for assistance on the song she’s writing; a “Record Store” with mementos saliently awaits; and a tattoo station invites those who want to temporarily memorialize the occasion on their bodies before entering the main venue.
Inside, tables and chairs — each with menus and ballad-beckoning toy lighters on them — are arrayed on the stage and around it. A few hundred audience members can comfortably be seated and order a “Motorin’” or “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” cocktail, for instance, as waitstaff serve drinks and light bites all the while the performers dance on the stage and in the compact aisles. The best comparison to this setup would be the shows at Rockwell Table & Stage, but on steroids and with much more impressive (and expensive) production values.
The sweeping stage design by Beowulf Boritt and Jo Winiarski highlights the best of Sunset Boulevard with the Roxy, the Whisky (a Go Go), as well as the Chateau Marmont Hotel. A matrix of screens in the middle, which serves a supportive function throughout the musical, displays David Lee Roth in high definition before the show and a highly amusing “Whizz Clock” at intermission. Furthermore, the lighting by Jason Lyons is as intimate as it is grand, the sound design by Ben Soldate appropriately cranks up the volume of the myriad rock anthems (while never losing their clarity), the costumes coordinated by Eva Maciek gorgeously pay homage to the lurid decade that inspired them, the hair and wigs coordinated by Tommy Kurtzman are outrageously fun, and the make-up by Klint Flowers would make Bret Michaels (of Poison) proudly blush.
Not to mention, Kristin Hanggi’s direction feels more present and exuberant than it did on Broadway, Kelly Devine’s choreography translates well with added flavor and fervor in this up-close-and-personal environment, and Chris D’Arienzo’s book does a good job of capturing the free-for-all feel of the ’80s with rompers and ballads that accentuate the characters’ hopes and plights. This blast to the past all happens after an awesomely cheeky pre-recorded public service announcement by David Coverdale of “Whitesnake.”
The plot centers on the romance of two starry-eyed dreamers: Drew, a bar-back at the Bourbon Room who wants to be a rock star, and Sherrie, who moves to SoCal from the small town of Paola, Kansas, to make it as an actress. However, there are obstacles to be overcome, such as the fact that the Bourbon Room — which is run by its free-spirited owner, Dennis, and his eccentric pal (and narrator) Lonny — is being threatened by two puritanical German developers, Hertz and his son Franz, who hope to tear down the spot in an effort to anesthetize and revamp all of Sunset Blvd. Fortunately, the defiant City Planner, Regina (pronounced “Ragina” like the genitals), stands in the way of the rock-phobic developers. Drew, however, has a problem in the way of competition for Sherrie’s heart via the overtly sexual and womanizing frontman of the band Arsenal, Stacee Jaxx, who is wooed by Dennis to play his last show at the Bourbon Room before going solo. Eventually, things don’t go as planned for either Sherrie, who becomes a stripper in the employ of “Mama” Justice Charlier, nor Drew, who has his vision stripped from him by dishonest management. The surprising conclusion is facilitated by Lonny and offers an interesting commentary on changing circumstances and adapting to them.
Matt Wolpe is the fun-loving, easily excitable, and cartwheel-performing Lonny, who is a fourth-wall-breaking “dramatic conjurer” in addition to being Dennis’ best friend. Wolpe’s portrayal feels light and extemporaneous as he interacts with the audience and in many ways earns the distinction of being the linchpin and heart of the show. Wolpe’s comedy is also on point as his mullet-wearing and nunchucks-swinging Lonny ensures that Act I finishes with a flurry of jazz hands before he subsequently performs a riotous more-than-friendship duet in Act II (“Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon) with Nick Cordero’s Dennis (reprising his role from the first national tour).
The tall Cordero is stringy-haired, and clad in a suede leather jacket with fringes, but what makes him really stand out is his deep-diaphragm baritone vocals, which is likewise emphasized in Styx’s “Too Much Time on My Hands,” among other songs. Despite having his establishment about to be bulldozed, Dennis is as cool as a cucumber, going with the ebbs and flows. Similar to his stage partner, Wolpe, Cordero’s alter-ego rocker is comically oblivious, earning many laughs, perhaps none louder than when he spastically airs his disconnected stream of consciousness, channeling Jack Nicholson, Sally Field and the ghost of Marlon Brando in the same speech.
As Drew, Ian Ward demonstrates superb soaring vocals that emote his character’s desire to get his big break and graduate from a life of grunt work and singing into plungers. Besides being splendidly accurate in his take on hits like Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock,” Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again,” and Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie,” Ward is remarkable for lacing his voice with a tempered grit that nicely calls back to the era when these songs topped the Billboard charts. At the same time, Ward’s duets with Marisa Matthews’ Sherrie are spine-tinglingly powerful and strongly convey his character’s desire for her.
Matthews, who has played Anna at Disney California Adventure’s “Frozen – Live at the Hyperion,” resembles a young Paula Abdul as Sherrie. The audience roots for her persona to succeed as she belts one number after another, singing with emotion as the stakes of her odyssey increase with each passing scene. For instance, her rendition of “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash to open Act II has all eyes on her as does her lay-it-all-on-the-line performance (opposite Ward) of Damn Yankees’ “High Enough.”
Moreover, Matthews’ acting is compelling in communicating the frustration her character feels in being led on by the two-faced Stacee Jaxx, depicted by Sean Yves Lessard, whose chiseled physique belies the dastardly appearances of most villains. It’s hard to imagine an antagonist who is pampered, throws panties, literally sparkles, and has garishly blond hair to be formidable, but Lessard pulls it off with swagger, giving Tom Cruise a run for his money. Lessard is also a world-class tenor and bests Jon Bon Jovi himself in “Wanted Dead or Alive,” gets comically inappropriate as Jaxx with Matthews’ Sherrie in Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” and then gets his comeuppance courtesy of the same woman, with a crushing boot to the family jewels. This yields a humorously pained expression from Lessard, in the spirited back-and-forth mashup of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Hate Myself for Loving You” and Asia’s “Heat of the Moment.”
And although some may point to Sherrie’s occupation as a stripper at the Venus Club as the nadir in her journey, it is Justice, the Club’s owner, who acts as the voice of reason to Sherrie’s malaise. Notably, Regina LeVert has such a commanding presence as Justice that when she comes on in Act II, she is instantaneously a crowd favorite. LeVert further has the audience in the palm of her hand with a contemporary version of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It,” which puts the spotlight on Justice’s agile pole dancers (Tiffany Mallari, Zoe Unkovich, and Neka Zang).
Another standout showing is by Stephanie Renee Wall, the second performer with “Frozen – Live at the Hyperion” (as Elsa) on her resume. Wall plays the steadfast protester in the bespectacled Regina, who brazenly waves signs, passes out flyers, chants “power to the proletariat,” and exclaims with a roaring vocal intensity in Starship’s “We Built This City” and especially Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Wall additionally proves her effortless versatility by quick-changing a few times into an exotic dancer before reverting back to Regina again.
After having played Franz on Broadway 2014-15, Frankie Grande (brother to Ariana) is back in all his flamboyant splendor as the downtrodden son, who is “not gay, just German.” Franz struggles to come out of his father’s stringent shadow and aver his own dream. An unlikely partnership with Regina sees a loud and proud rendering of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” with a sartorial tip of the hat to Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.” The last of the principals, Pat Towne, plays the domineering dad, Hertz, with a fiendish resoluteness while affecting a spot-on German accent.
Rounding out the cast are Stefan Raulston as the Mayor, Justin Ray as Joey Primo, and Chuck Saculla. Besides being excellent movers, each of the cast members is a proficient vocalist capable of a few extra gears. The company numbers are particularly exhilarating, in part due to music director and keyboardist Jonathan Quesenberry, whose expert band — featuring Greg Coates on bass, Kevin Kapler on drums, as well as Pat Lukin and Maddox on guitar — gives “Rock of Ages” a valuable authenticity.
Overall, with its fist-pumping rock tunes, high-powered singing, and a presentational immersion that draws the observer right in, “Rock of Ages” will inspire rhythmic clapping, tickle with laughter, and galvanize with a bang. It is a love letter to 1980’s rock, inclusive of all its ridiculousness that we’ve come to love, sometimes being suitably genuine, other times becoming a full-blown satire not unlike “This Is Spinal Tap” (e.g., prepare to be dazzled by the “Fogmaster 5000”). No matter what, though, the musical is always self-aware and is poised to succeed as a Hollywood staple for years to come. Get ready to rock ’til you drop!
For more information about “Rock of Ages” at the Bourbon Room (located at 6356 Hollywood Blvd on the 2nd floor), please visit: