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Article updated: 6/8/2012 4:20 PM

'Rock of Ages' a jukebox hero, despite flaws

By Barbara Vitello

"Rock of Ages" knows exactly what it is.

A jukebox musical comprised of 1980s arena rock anthems and power ballads paired with a gossamer plot, paper-thin characters and visuals straight out of a Reagan-era music video, "Rock of Ages" is nothing but a good time.

An affectionate sendup of hair-metal bands and the female fans who loved them, this energetic show -- whose score comes courtesy of Journey, Twisted Sister, REO Speedwagon, Poison and Foreigner among others -- doesn't amount to superlative theater. If that's what you're looking for, I suggest you head to Goodman Theatre where "The Iceman Cometh" is in its final weeks.

And yet, Wednesday's opening at Chicago's nicely intimate Broadway Playhouse -- home to the touring company for the next nine weeks -- put smiles on the faces of several hundred thirty-, forty- and fiftysomethings who zealously sang along, banged their heads and waved faux lighters (which producers thoughtfully provided) as they savored the soundtrack of their youth and young adulthood.

"Rock of Ages" -- whose arrival precedes by a little more than two weeks the release of the film version starring Tom Cruise -- doesn't take itself seriously. Chris D'Arienzo's deliberately cheesy book winks and nods at the audience. Moreover, there is a self-awareness to this self-mocking, joyfully campy, vamptastic show that director Kristin Hanggi and her young, hardworking cast clearly embrace. Which is why "Rock of Ages" works as well as it does: everyone's in on the joke. And everyone, including the audience, is along for the ride.

The perfunctory, predictable plot centers on Drew (the earnest, boyish Dominique Scott), an aspiring rocker from Detroit, and Kansas transplant Sherrie (Shannon Mullen), a wannabe actress with a sweet disposition and a slutty wardrobe. They meet during the mid-1980s on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, where Drew works in a rock club called the Bourbon Room. It's owned by Dennis (Jacob L. Smith), a former rocker who keeps the place afloat with help from raspy-voiced, right-hand man Lonny (Justin Colombo), a drummer turned sound man who also serves as the show's narrator.

Of course, true love never runs smooth in the glam-rock world. Drew and Sherrie's romance -- which seems about to blossom thanks to moonlight and a four-pack of wine coolers -- quickly withers after Sherrie catches the eye of rock god Stacee Jaxx (Matt Nolan, the epitome of the overindulged "artist"), a preening, frequently shirtless frontman who predictably seduces then discards her. Meanwhile, a pair of German developers Hertz (Philip Peterson) and his son Franz (Stephen Michael Kane) scheme to replace the Strip's rock clubs and strip joints with retail chains and fast-food outlets, which prompts a protest led by activist Regina (Katie Postotnik).

But a hackneyed storyline isn't "Rock of Ages'" only problem. Another has to do with songs that don't really suit the story. When it comes to tunes featured in a jukebox show, one size does not fit all. That's a problem that can plague off-the-rack musicals like this, where creators try to force a tune to fit the narrative, or vice versa. Although the opening-night audience didn't seem to notice those ill-fitting moments, probably too caught up in the nostalgia to notice.

Scott and Mullen are capable singers, but on a soaring number like "High Enough," they fail to scale the heights Jack Blades and Tommy Shaw ascended in the Damn Yankees' original version. That said, Poison's pedestrian "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" never sounded better than it does coming from supporting actress Amma Osei. Nolan delivers a suitably world-weary version of Bon Jovi's "Wanted, Dead or Alive." The production boasts a rock-solid stage band led by Darren Ledbetter, and the entire cast comes together to deliver a powerhouse performance of the Whitesnake power ballad "Here I Go Again" to conclude Act I.

At the end of the day, no one will rank "Rock of Ages" among the great musicals. Which is just as well because I don't think it aspires to those ranks. "Rock of Ages" just wants to show audiences a good time. And it does.

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