If you go
What: The BDT Stage production of “Rock of Ages”
When: Through Nov. 11
Where: BDT Stage, 5501 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder
Cost: Tickets start at $43
More info: 303-449-6000 or bdtstage.com
Nostalgia is a powerful dramatic device.
The lure of yesteryear is hypnotic, and diving into the songs, fashions and lingo of another time can give any basic story an added layer of appeal. The jukebox musical “Rock of Ages” revels in that effect — with a soundtrack built entirely around pop/rock tunes from the 1980s, the show draws its mood, feel and humor from the quirks of the Reagan era. Penned by Chris D’Arienzo, the musical is a loving, unabashed tribute to the era of glam metal and Aqua Net.
It’s an approach that could easily feel gimmicky, but the BDT Stage’s current staging of the show balances the script’s constant barrage of ’80s references with an affective amount of heart. Directed by BDT Stage veteran Scott Beyette, the Boulder production uses the stream of pop culture flashbacks as a springboard for effective and timeless storytelling.
The plot lurking behind all of the Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar and Poison covers is a good, old-fashioned love story. It’s 1987, and an aspiring rock musician named Drew Boley (BDT newcomer Tim Howard) is working as a barback at the Bourbon Room, a fictional Hollywood club modeled after the legendary Whisky A Go-Go. Sherrie Christian (Olyvia Sydelle) is a would-be actress from the Midwest, newly arrived in L.A. and looking to break into the “industry.”
When Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree (Beyette) hires Sherrie as a waitress, the sparks between the two starving artists fly. It wouldn’t be a story without conflict, however, and plenty stands in the way of the romance between Drew and Sherrie. When a pair of German developers, Hertz Klinemann (Brian Burron) and his son Franz (Brian Cronan) undertake a redevelopment project that would destroy the storied Bourbon Room, Dupree enlists famed rock-and-roll bad boy Stacee Jaxx (Scott Severtson) to headline a benefit show to save the club.
Scott Severtson as rock star Stacee Jaxx (front) in BDT Stage’s production of “Rock of Ages,” (Glenn Ross / Courtesy BDT Stage)
Jaxx’s hair-metal allure is powerful, and the budding romance between Sherrie and Drew is threatened, even as the future of the Bourbon looks increasingly grim. The plot echoes storylines from any number of ’80s comedies, a fact that isn’t lost on the writers.
Lonny Barnett (played brilliantly by Barret Harper) is a booze slinger at the Bourbon, but the character also serves as the show’s narrator, providing a running commentary and acknowledging the dramatic tropes and theatrical conventions of the whole undertaking. The touch is a not-so-subtle entry into the world of meta-theater, and it adds another dimension to the comedic structure of the piece.
Full of memorable characters
The BDT take on the musical succeeds in part because of this note of self-awareness. Director Beyette and the cast never take the constant nostalgia too seriously; amid the steady stream of ’80s hits and references to the cultural pitfalls of the “greed decade,” the actors always keep their focus squarely rooted in their characters. What’s more, the production embraces the more risqué elements of the piece; the show is officially rated PG-13, and it’s a refreshing twist to see the BDT crew tactfully tackle some content that’s much bluer than usual.
Howard and Sydelle keep up a chemistry as the two romantic leads, and both maintain a sense of bravado as their characters face their own separate crises — Drew is forced to compromise his artistic ideals when a sleazy agent casts him in a boy band, and Sherrie takes a short-lived gig as a stripper after she’s kicked out of the Bourbon. These two central characters find support in a strong ensemble full of memorable characters. Severtson is properly slimy as the rock god Jaxx; Burron is imperious as the greedy German developer, and Cronan is convincingly conflicted as his well-meaning son. Beyette plays the perfect grizzled veteran of the L.A. scene, and his relationship with Harper as the narrator/clown Lonny Barnett yields some of the funniest moments of the show. The cast also includes a number of strong satellite characters, including Valerie Igoe as Regina, a municipal employee determined to save the historic tenants of the Sunset Strip, and BDT mainstay Joanie Brosseau as Justice, the matron of a “gentleman’s club” who offers Sherrie insights about chasing one’s dream in L.A.
All of these actors find the cores of their respective characters amid a steady, dense soundtrack of ’80s tunes delivered with expertise by the small rock “orchestra,” led by musical director Neal Dunfee. Apart from a full rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” these tunes come largely in snippets and excerpts. Fans of the rock music of the era are likely to hear at least a few of their favorite tunes, even if they come in brief musical asides instead of full-blown covers.
The effect can be dizzying — the tunes come one after another, and the packed score lends the feel of an ambitious mix tape. Considering the context of the show, that feel is completely appropriate. Coupled with energetic, dynamic routines designed by choreographer McKayla Marso, the constant music creates a distinct mood. D’Arienzo’s script sometimes seems dictated by the tunes — key lyrics from Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City,” Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” seem to drive the plot at certain points.
Happily, plot isn’t subservient to nostalgia in the BDT Stage’s take on “Rock of Ages.” The production revels in ’80s fever just enough to make the story run smoothly. Beyette and the cast recognize the importance of characters and storytelling, elements that never get subsumed in hairspray, mullets and Styx covers.