Asked what drove them to make music, I'm absolutely certain that neither Liszt nor Lennon, Mozart nor McCartney, Elgar nor Ellington, Beethoven nor the Beach Boys would ever say they were aiming to melt your face off. Yet that is the explicit promise flung at us by our narrator, Lonny, as he takes us back to '80s L.A. and the seedy Bourbon Room, launching Rock of Ages, now at Actor's Theatre through August 15. It's a trip that embraces the mountainous hair, the grunge aesthetic, the ostentatiously shabby clothes and the high-voltage heavy metal that ruled the Reagan Era.
That journey isn't calculated to build a warm consensus: depending on your age and tastes, you'll be jumping for joy, cringing in terror or laughing out loud at the prospect. Chris D'Arienzo, writing the frankly schlocky script, has two of those camps covered, for he lightly mocks the era through Lonny, who doubles as the Bourbon Room soundman, and sets up unexpectedly absurd contexts for "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and "Can't Stop This Feeling." Director Chip Decker takes care of the cringers, calming the unrest they might be feeling about large decibels in a small theater even before the show begins.
Calling upon all his know-how with the arch, ironic and trashy off-Broadway musicals that have become an Actor's Theatre trademark, Decker also makes this double-barreled jukeboxer far more sexy and hilarious than the touring version I saw in 2011 at the big Belk. Maybe D'Arienzo had to promise a certain degree of respect in exchange for the rights to his hit parade when he first put this cavalcade of Bon Jovi, Pat Banatar, REO Speedwagon and over 30 others on its feet in L.A. in 2005, three years before it came to off-Broadway. No kid gloves are softening Decker's merry assault, yet the five-piece band, led by Mike Wilkins, featuring two guitarists — Chris Michael Taylor and Thomas Faucetta — are playing their asses off, untamed until their thrashing hits the soundboard.
Strangely, I never saw any air guitars or cigarette lighters in the audience, so it was a little suspenseful how they would break. In a pre-show that mixed charm with alarm, videos splayed on a pair of upstage projection screens shuttled between Hard Rock Cafe fodder and snippets of some seriously lame TV sitcoms and commercials. Volume was already bearable, and it stayed that way during the show — until the true believers in the crowd came out of the closet in response to their favorite guilty pleasures. Seems like the loudest screamers always sit near me. It's a gift.
Drew, a wannabe rocker who's new to Sunset Strip, shows up at the Bourbon Room, hoping to rocket to stardom with his original songs but willing to sweep. The spacey owner of the joint, Dennis Dupree, is leery of hiring Drew when business is bad, but the spacier Lonny talks him into it — with what I dimly remember as a what-the-hell argument. More importantly, Lonny sells Dennis on a can-miss idea to save the Bourbon Room from financial ruin, the wrecking ball and the greed of evil German developers who are bribing the mayor.
Having heard that egocentric Stacee Jaxx, lead singer of Arsenal, is breaking up with his band, Lonnie proposes that their farewell concert should happen at the Bourbon Room, where the group got its start. With all those ingredients — the dive, the band, the imperiled owner, the villains and plenteous chances for hard rockin' — we should be good to go.
But wait a second. Lonny breaks the fourth wall (not for the last time) to remind us we don't have the indispensible ingredient for true heavy metal heartbreak and musicals of all ages. We don't have romance yet. Enter Sherrie Christian, fresh from the Midwest and brimful of Hollywood dreams. To be truthful, her story becomes far more interesting than Drew's, her degradations only beginning with a toilet stall deflowering. Did you really think that Drew was going to dance up and down those two poles spread-eagled on either side of Dee Blackburn's raunchy set design?
Decker accomplishes this power launch to ATC's 27th season with a mix of onstage talent that knows the drill and some newbies — performers who have either excelled in other productions around town or have been imported on Actor's Equity contracts especially for this gig. The Bourbon Room is certainly in familiar hands with Jeremy DeCarlos gracefully zigzagging between fine hash mellow and bad trip freak-out as Dennis. Nobody in town can wear a pile of bad hair better than Grant Watkins as our wily narrator, ever amped and upbeat because, hey, Lonny has read the script.
Adversaries are equally self-recommending. Thickening the accent he used so memorably at ATC in repeated stints as Hedwig, Billy Ensley is more ridiculously Arian as Hertz Klinemann, the rich and dictatorial real estate predator we must all strive to worry about. Meanwhile, Stephen Seay continues his career-long odyssey in petulance as Franz, shriveling and seething in his papa's overbearing presence. He will blossom somewhat ludicrously under the light of affection of city planner Regina (rhymes with vagina), played as a wallflower with vocal chords of steel by Katy Shepherd.
At the center of all this action as Drew, Matt Carlson has enough of a collegian's boyish urgency to be oblivious to all of it, caring only about getting his big break and finding love with Sherrie. Carlson has been on our radar since 2009, when he starred as Radames in Disney's Aida while still a freshman phenom at Northwest School of the Arts. But the remaining two-thirds of this Rock triangle are newbies — and pretty phenomenal themselves.
We should probably accord Aaron Coulson villain status as Stacee Jaxx, but aren't his sleazy masculinity and his superstar irresponsibility the personification of all that Drew strives for — the very essence of the arrogance that Rock of Ages celebrates and mocks? Besides, it's hard not to salivate at — or be intimidated by — the opportunity of bedding Savannah-Lee Mumford as Sherrie. Mumford is innocent, flirtatious or trashy with each new costume change, maybe more woman than Drew can handle, and she yields nothing to the formidable men when she belts out a song.
Those costumes are designed by a dream team that includes Carrie Cranford, Adam Swez and burlesque hall-of-famer Deana Pendragon. Yes, we do go there when Sherrie gets desperate, for she is taken under the wing of Justice, owner of the exotic Venus Club, a soulful debut for Carlita Victoria. At least a couple more goddesses work at the Venus, portrayed by Aubrey Young and Emily Ramirez, providing additional outlets for the Pendragon touch. Making ample use of those poles, Tod A. Kubo sets all this poetry in motion, surpassing himself with his choreography. A pair of tear-away costumes triggers the most shocking collaboration between Kubo and the dream team.
Speaking of dreams, only one of mine didn't come true on opening night. None of the couples in the crowd came to see Rock of Ages expecting to hear the old Christian hymn. It would have been jolly to watch them flee the theater as soon as they learned what was about to happen to their faces.