"The best thing about Rock of Ages is that it doesn't even pretend to take itself seriously," says reviewer Robert Cushman in Canada's National Post. Since Cushman's review focuses on the musical version that is on tour now in Canada, it was different in some ways from the one I saw on Broadway this week. While Cushman's point is valid, the "best thing" about the musical goes beyond just being fast and loose - it nods knowingly at the audience in ways no other show does. Such a spectacle is therefore not just a welcome change to the often stuffy stage, it's more so a re-interpretation of the experience of being at the theater.
From the minute you arrive, you're thrust into a concert venue. Posters line the walls, announcements echo those at a rock concert, and characters run through the aisles and up onto the stage. You don't see that kind of pep rally-like excitement anywhere outside of a Poison concert. It's clear that this show's lack of seriousness is intended to challenge the expectations and old rules of theater and instead to transport the audience to the heyday of rock 'n' roll. So even before the first songs and lines, you've accepted that this isn't just an ordinary night out.
Once you give in to the peer pressure to clap, and sing along, and dance in your seat (at my performance, one member of the crowd even waved a lighter during ballads) you have the time of your life. For many, it's a nostalgic reminder of an era of hair bands gone by and also, of course, a return to a time before they could afford to attend Broadway productions. What makes this initiative so effective and embraced is the fact that it's not just an opportunity to re-live the music of a past generation; it's a show designed to also spoof the clunky story lines and poorly crafted characters that defined that era's artistic performances and, yes, behavioral and cultural fads.
That's something that Cushman, in his review, all but dismisses as overstated and overdone. "I think it's about time that rock, the big money in American music, stopped posing as some kind of persecuted innocent, a stance that hasn't been credible since, at the latest, 1957," he argues. Sure, that's a legitimate point made by all those who emerged from the hippie movement to go on to do other things. However, he's criticizing Rock of Ages for the reality, behavior, and overall attitude that the show pokes fun at. I have no doubt that the show's creators would agree with Cushman's contention here. In fact, the show's narrator even draws your attention early on to the fact that we all know the story arc and inevitable dramatic cues ahead of time, from a life of exposure to these types of shows.
This is most evident when toward the end of the first act the narrator comes back to the stage alone and forces the audience to wonder if the play met the expectations that it would go out with a bang. To that point, it hadn't. Drawing attention to it reinforces the point that the production is in on the joke. So when the narrator then exits in order to give away to an elaborate and well-drawn-out rendition of Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" it fills our need to go into the break with that kind of staged closure. Yet not without escorting us to the aisles, hand in hand.