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Theater review: 'Rock of Ages' at the Pantages Theatre

February 16, 2011 |  2:49 pm

Rock The aphorism that “comedy is tragedy plus time” may hold no truer than in the case of the hair-band scare of the late 1980s. Though it’s hard to imagine now, it was a scary thing, back then, wondering if Warrant, Winger, Whitesnake and all the other ascendant two-syllable poof-heads at the time might ultimately take over rock ’n’ roll with their utterly unironic combination of mascara and machismo. Then came the great Nirvana raid of the early ’90s, and suddenly hipsters emerged from their safe houses, not only abiding but singing along with the power ballads of the vanquished oppressors. Sure, we can laugh about it now.

Here to elbow you into comic submission is “Rock of Ages,” the nostalgia-baiting Broadway musical, which settled Tuesday into the Pantages Theatre, just a few miles from its Sunset Strip setting. The show doesn’t have enough of a point of view to care whether you laugh out of superiority or wistfulness; it just aims to be Dr. Feelgood. Proximity to real locations doesn’t do anything for this gleefully sub-lowbrow show, which could hardly care less about getting the details of 1980s Sunset Boulevard right.

You will chortle, and you will sing along, and you will hate yourself in the morning — which may be the only way in which the show really faithfully re-creates the heyday of the infamous Rainbow Bar & Grill.

This show’s take on the late ’80s makes “The Wedding Singer” look like found documentary footage. So if it’s knowing insider humor you’re looking for, don’t bother. In this and every other sense, “Rock of Ages” is the opposite of “White Trash Wins Lotto,” the brilliant Andy Prieboy musical about Axl Rose that had too short a run a few years back.

“Ages” comes not to satirize — unless you consider the very appearance of wine coolers satirical — but to celebrate, in a way that even elderly Pacific Rim tourists could understand. You may feel churlish for being bothered that, in this fantasy world, the Strip is in the city of Los Angeles instead of West Hollywood, or that it has its own Arby’s that serves as an odd running joke. Angelenos would be wasting their time wondering who the buffoonish African American mayor is supposed to represent, or why he is taking bribes from mincing German real estate investors who want to tear down the Roxy and Rainbow — sorry, “Bourbon Room” — for redevelopment. Rest assured that these anti-establishment plot elements exist for the sole purpose of shoehorning Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” into the show (and a welcome shoehorning it is).

Mostly, it’s the boy-meets-wholesome-groupie story of Drew, a would-be rocker played with almost puppyish earnestness by former “American Idol” contestant Constantine Maroulis. He is the best thing about the production, and not just because he is the only actor on stage who looks like he is wearing his real hair. Although he’s been playing the role on Broadway and on tour for almost two years, Maroulis still seems every bit as shy as he should in the opening scenes, before the power of metal compels him to set his Jimmy Fallon-ish likability aside and go get the girl, if not a career.

His love interest is Sherrie — so named so that Maroulis can show off his best Steve Perry imitation — and she’s played by Rebecca Faulkenberry, who is convincing as a straight-off-the-bus Midwesterner and a little less so later on as a hardened stripper.

Needless to say, maybe, it’s a show that doesn’t even attempt to supplement the cartoonishness with emotional resonance. The fourth wall is continually broken, presumably for the benefit of musical first-timers, with a soundman character who laments that he was “hired to narrate a show with poop jokes and Whitesnake songs.” The messed-up complications come when Sherri succumbs to the charms of metal star Stacee Jaxx (a very funny MiG Ayesa, who looks like the reincarnation of the Tubes’ old Quay Lude character). This eventually leads her to a strip club, though her stint being forced to give lap dances is treated as being no more psychologically damaging a blip than Drew’s brief stint as an indentured boy-band frontman.

But as a concert experience with connective tissue, “Rock of Ages” has undeniable pleasures, the greatest of which is the closing Journey number that inadvertently turned out to be one of the great show tunes of the modern age. (The show could easily be titled “Waiting for ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.”) Two and a half hours in, the show’s single greatest raison d’être is worth waiting through the wine cooler and STD jokes for, even if you can’t help noticing there’s more depth in a single one of its lonesome verses than in any of the comedy that’s come before. Does it matter that real metal-heads of the late ’80s wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to Journey or Styx or Quarterflash or Starship — or any of the other lite-rock acts whose songs have been drafted alongside Poison’s and Quiet Riot’s in a bid to up the hummability quotient?

Not really. An appropriated show tune is an appropriate show tune, whether it’s one as expectedly painful as “We Built This City” or as awesome as the dreaded Whitesnake’s magnificently transformed “Here I Go Again.” The one truth that writer Chris D’Arienzo and director Kristin Hanggi do get right — and maybe, in the end, the only one that matters — is that, as lame as a lot of these “anthemic” songs sounded sung by one guy who didn’t understand the humor in his own bouffant, they sound almost uniformly great sung by a dozen or more choristers at once. And that’s something that makes for occasional transcendence in “Rock of Ages” — even if it doesn’t bode well for an eventual Pavement/Sonic Youth/Built to Spill ’90s indie-rock musical.

“Rock of Ages” should be particularly buzz-worthy in its two-week Pantages run (followed by eight performances in Costa Mesa) thanks to breaking news that producers of a big-budget movie adaptation are circling around names like Tom Cruise, Mary J. Blige and Anne Hathaway. There is no doubt a film adaptation will see a million faces and rock them all, in the words of the sage. So let’s just hope a screenwriter is already hard at work ditching dialogue like “He’s a star, and stars are undeniable, like herpes.” Because herpes plus time is still not quite comedy.

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"Rock of Ages," Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles , 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Ends Feb. 27. $25 to $90, (800) 982-2787 or www.broadwayla.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Also: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, 7:30 p.m. March 1-5, 2 p.m. March 5 and 1 and 6:30 p.m. March 6, $20-$80, (714) 556-2787 or www.scfta.org.

Photo:  "Rock of Ages"  at the Pantages Theatre. Credit: Winslow Townson.

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