By Quinn Rigg
Given the general gloom and doom of near-constant daily social upheaval, many today heave heavy sighs for simpler times. That said, a desire for “simpler times” often translates to a longing for familiar distractions in the face of unfamiliar circumstances.
Paramount Theatre attempts to create a distraction big enough to mask the most unfamiliar of circumstances that looms outside, on the news, and in every once-comfortable corner our lives. Their new production of Rock of Ages—a good-time tale of L.A. dreamers rocking their way to a new tomorrow, built upon the glam and hair metal hits of Bon Jovi, Styx, Journey, et al—is as polished an assault on the senses as any of these acts’ arena concerts. About as smart, too. The latter wouldn’t necessarily be a demerit if it also wasn’t so disquietingly insensitive.
The sweet honey of this timeless music is soured by a book that’s agesd like milk in the midst of #MeToo and other such movements. It seems not a scene goes by without some woman’s clothes coming off either by coercion or coincidence. In particular, a scene involving Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You” features the narrator saying “the ‘nice guy’ act never works out: this is what women really want….” preceding another strip gag. That the characters are written as immature and moronic adds unnerving discord to the impenetrable chaos of Chris D’Arienzo’s book.
Director Amber Mak valiantly leans into the sensory overload inherent. The staging is playful while it tries to keep so many balls in the air, and choreographer Annie Jo Fischer crams in as much snap as she can. While it is still difficult to follow where the focus should be during complex sequences, this is more testament to Rock of Ages’ overwhelming narrative pacing than anything else.
And, given its less-than-delicate approach to interpersonal relationships, there is thankfully an intimacy director in Jyrekia Guest whose presence ensures the safety of all involved.
Everyone seems to feel safe; the entire cast is irrepressibly energetic and undeniably skilled. Kieran McCabe sings with incredible range, nailing the style as though coming straight off an album. Shea Coffman is charming as envoy-to-the-audience Lonny. Carisa Gonzalez brings the house down with her masterful belt as Regina. Deft performers all, the versatility and precision of this cast befits them as all stars in concerts, even laden with the material.
For their part, music director Kory Danielson and the killer band sound like they eat eat raw riffs for breakfast. Conductor and associate music director Kara Kesselring locks it down with precision and tears it up with passion.
But to what end?
A supposed send-up of the frenetic frivolity of the 80s, Rock of Ages ends up encapsulating and and celebrating the ignorance, misogyny, and excess of a culture that wasn’t as simple as we’d hoped to remember. While hair may have been big back then, so too was the sensational incompetence of the Reagan administration as it ignored its own epidemic ravaging the country’s most vulnerable populations. Rock of Ages is not an escape from the pandemic raging outside today, or, as one could put it, “just dumb fun.” It could well be a roadmap to how we got here in the first place.
Rock of Ages runs through May 29th at The Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Boulevard, Aurora, IL. For tickets or more information, please visit paramountaurora.com or call (630) 896-6666.
Photos by Liz Lauren.