Photo / Joan Marcus
Here are two things I never thought I’d do, despite my past in rock journalism:
(1) See a live performance by Constantine Maroulis, almost-famed for his sixth-place finish in American Idol (2002, won by some girl named Carrie Underwood);
(2) Attend a Broadway musical based on an Eighties hair band.
But I did both the other night, at the Curran Theater in San Francisco, and I’m glad I did.
The play is Rock of Ages, and Maroulis, cute as he ever was, is top-billed as Drew, a lowly janitor working at a Sunset Strip rock club who desperately wants to be … well, an American idol.
Maroulis, who earned a Tony nomination, shares the stage with several powerhouse performers, most of them capable of finding work in Poison or Van Halen tribute bands. The music is a tribute to whoever had to license it. There are songs—often just snippets—by Twisted Sister, Night Ranger, Survivor, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, REO Speedwagon, Styx, David Lee Roth, Asia, Warrant, and Whitesnake. There’s Quarterflash, Pat Benatar and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. There is, sad to say, “We Built This City,” although the Rock of Ages rendering of it is ages from the Starship’s. Finally, there are Steve Perry, whose “Oh Sherrie” gives us the name of Constantine’s romantic co-lead, and Journey, whose “Don’t Stop Believin’” serves as the all-stops-out finale.
Journey was no hair band, but the show could not have had a better closing number -- especially in San Francisco, where that song became an anthem for the Giants’ run through the playoffs and World Series.
When the cast launched into “Don’t Stop,” the audience went nuts. You can’t have cell phones on during a performance, so you couldn’t use a flashlight app, but I saw dozens of people waving mini-flashlights in time with the music.
That was the undisputed highlight of the musical. Close behind: Right after the finale, Constantine thanked the on-stage band (using the F bomb in the process) that rocked hard through the two-hour play, then welcomed on stage, from out of the opening night audience, Ross Valory of Journey and all of Night Ranger (Brad Gillis, Jack Blades, Joel Hoekstra and Kelly Keagy, in case you’re keeping score). Also in the audience: Billy Gould of Faith No More. On stage, a couple of the real rockers clapped along with “Don’t Stop” while others just stood and smiled.
It could be that some of them weren’t all that knocked out by Rock of Ages. Despite the music, a soundtrack for rock fans of a certain age who were not into Madonna, Lionel Richie, new wave or boy bands, the storyline was pure old school Broadway. Aspiring star; a love story almost gone awry; an us (rockers) versus them (redevelopers) subplot that weighs things down but does lead into some knockout songs and dancing. Rock of Ages, a smash on Broadway since spring of 2009 (a film version is due by the middle of 2012), follows age-old musical formulas. From Hair to Hairspray to hair bands, it’s all been staged before – only with less bluster.
Still, Rock of Ages is loaded with excellent performances and more than a few big laughs, from a set piece to the tune of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” that turns into a surprising, same-sex ballet –a pas de dudes, if you will -- to the mere sight of a bottle of Bartle & Jaymes wine cooler. There’s a zany character who doubles as a narrator who dances through the fourth wall, at one point telling Constantine/Drew that he’s a character in a play called Rock of Ages.
And then there’s that finale, leaving you humming as you leave the theater, and with no regrets at all that, on this Wednesday evening, you missed American Idol.
[Note: The above is my latest blog for Wolfgang’s Vault’s site.]