Monday 11 October 2010

Theatre Review: Rock of Ages

Mirvish Productions has been hosting this show at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto since May 11, 2010. If I inspire you to take the plunge, I see the calendar of shows has performances until the end of the year. I'm assuming it will continue after that but who knows? Try to fit it into your schedule but as always, be sure to book in advance.

When I think of a musical, I think of the idea of starting with a story the adding music to it. However, doing it the other way around, taking the music then developing a story to fit the songs has existed for some time. Pick a specific composer or a group of pieces then work out a narrative to link them together. This is called a jukebox musical.

While the Buddy Holly story may have been one of the first, the "first" real jukebox to popularize the genre was Momma Mia based on the music of Abba. The whole family went out to see this and quite thoroughly enjoyed it. While my wife and I were familiar with all the tunes having lived through the time when Abba was on the radio's top 10 fairly frequently, our daughters still enjoyed the show. The creators first of all had a selection of excellent pop candy. Abba was in the top 10 frequently with good reason having consistently put out a superior product. Who doesn't recognize any of those songs? Also, the creators managed to string together a humorous feel good story which gave the perfect vehicle for this string of Abba hits.

My wife and I also saw We Will Rock You based on the music of Queen but somehow, we found that this didn't work out as well as Momma Mia. The hits were there and while Queen has a recognizable portfolio of songs, the story didn't quite capture our hearts like Momma Mia.

Jersey Boys based on the music of Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons was delightful. Of course, I'm really dating myself since this band's zenith was during the 60's and 70's. The story, which was actually the story of the band interspersed with their songs proved to be quite interesting and told us things we didn't actually know.

Rock of Ages
As with the other "rock musicals", the producers have put together a story which provides the framework to showcase the songs. The setting is the mid to late 80s in Los Angeles and can be best represented by the type of long hair, pretty boy, glam rock music; this certainly was the era of sex, drugs and rock & roll. The show featured the music of such bands as Styx, Poison, Asia, Foreigner, Journey and the Jefferson Starship. One disappointment in the program is that they did not list all of the songs and the original band that would have played them. There was a list of songs attributing to the composer but unfortunately, I don't recognize the songs by somebody who may not have even been in the band. Don't forget that bands did do covers of other people's music.

There was a live 5 piece right on stage. Considering the stage setting represented a club in L.A., having the band right there fit in perfectly. Oh yeah, I looked at the speakers on either side of the stage and was wondering if I should have brought ear plugs but they turned out to be unnecessary. Back in my teenage years I went to concerts that were just deafening. After an absence of over a decade, I went to a rock concert when I was over 30 and surprisingly enough, it was too loud; I ended up having to improvise ear plugs with Kleenex. I just couldn't handle it! Ha!

Good singing, good playing, good choreography; it was all there glued together by the most amusing of narrators. One of the characters it turned out did double duty as a character and the narrator and the producers chose wisely as this gentleman was excellent at warming up the audience and making us laugh.

Even though I'm old enough to have lived through the era, I must admit I did not know all the songs. Curious. Hmmm, one of my "lost decades"? [wink wink] Of course, now that I think about it [look up at the ceiling reflectively] my own rock era was really the later part of high school which would put me around 1968 to 1972, well before the glam rock time. I guess my acquaintance with the music of Rock of Ages is more from the radio than from personal experience.

At one point of the show, a smattering of people held up lights. I immediately recognized this as the tradition in a stadium concert of people holding up a lighter. I had to chuckle; people were holding up what appeared to be a battery operated LED. Gee, not only do we respect the fire code, we are going green with a low power bulb. Ha! I've been at concerts in Maple Leaf Gardens when it was full (over 16,000 seats) and people would bring out lighters, yes real lighters and I would witness the magic of a sea of thousands of points of lights. To date myself, I was at the Jimi Hendrix concert at Maple Leaf Gardens on May 3, 1969. [chuckles] I picture the fire marshal having a conniption.

The last song of the night was Journey's Don't Stop Believing, an excellent song. For any fans of the HBO television series The Sopranos, you will remember that the show's creator David Chase ended his series with the same song. Go out on a high.

The Royal Alexandra Theatre
For those of you who have been to the theatre, it has the atmosphere of an older venue, something where you would see... oh, South Pacific or one of the other more traditional works. After all, it has been operating since 1907. Rock of Ages rolls out a more modern fare and does rock the house.

As an FYI, a couple of years ago, the theatre was open during Toronto's annual Doors Open event. My wife and I took advantage to walk behind the scenes at the theatre looking backstage, viewing the dressing rooms and walking upstairs to see some of the scaffolding over the stage. If it comes up again and you have the opportunity, it's interesting to get a chance to see the theatre from an angle other than being in the audience watching a show.

At first, I was thinking of going to a Sunday afternoon performance. The cost was $115. However, I got sidetracked with other things so looked later at the evening performance at 7pm. Much to my surprise I got a good seat but it only cost $50. I have no idea if this was because I went solo and got an odd seat that turned out to be a left over in between 2 other parties.

My final assessment
The music is of the 80's, your glam rock period. If that's not your cup of tea, I'd pass. While the overall show is an okay piece of entertainment, I can't say it's on par with Momma Mia which was good enough to stand on its own even if you had never heard of Abba before. Of course, if you can get tickets for $50 instead of a hundred, go for it. Let's not forget that live entertainment is pretty expensive in comparison with the cinema: $50 will get 2 people into the movies. But for all the special effects and what not in a movie, there certainly is something special about a live person on stage. It's a bit more of a personal connection.


Wikipedia: Rock of Ages (musical)

Wikipedia: Jukebox Musical


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