Review: Rock of Ages dazzles Stage West

Rock of Ages is playing at Stage West Community Playhouse, 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill. Courtesy Carol Ballard
Rock of Ages is playing at Stage West Community Playhouse, 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill. Courtesy Carol Ballard
Published March 9, 2018

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s (or heard 1980s rock bands through their offsprings' bedroom door) probably will recognize the songs that anchor Rock of Ages, the jukebox/rock musical playing through March 18 at Stage West Community Playhouse — Steve Perry, Journey, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Whitesnake, Styx, Poison, Twisted Sister, Foreigner, Bon Jovi and all.

The story woven between the songs has naive Detroit singer/composer Drew Boley (a charming, rockin' Jay Garcia), going to Los Angeles, hoping to become a famous rock star. He winds up in an iconic Hollywood club called the Bourbon Room, not performing, but cleaning tables and toilets and taking orders from club manager Lonny and club owner Dennis Dupree. He's lonely and immediately falls for a gorgeous new arrival from Kansas, Sherrie Christian, who aspires to be an actress, but takes a job as a waitress at the Bourbon Room instead.

All seems well, until two German developers, Hertz Klinemann (Dalton Benson) and his mincing son Franz (Keith Surplus), show up to tear down the Sunset Strip, including the Bourbon Room, and introduce "clean living" to the area. The Bourbon Room regulars, led by the bouncy Evy Poulis as rebel Regina, begin to protest. The rest of the show is the battle between rockers and developers, with rock star Stacee Jaxx brought in for one big show that could save the club from demolition.

The stage version is quite different from the movie, with one, all-purpose set (designed by director Lynda Dilts-Benson), a huge, backlit screen upstage and a terrific on-stage, five-piece rock group (Carol Ballard, Glenn Ireland, Steven Muriel, Lauren Ballard and Madison Chase). Stacey Jaxx isn't a hot, sexy Tom Cruise in leather pants and bare chest, but as played by Ed Audette, is an aging, paunchy, not-too-bright jerk in glittery platform boots, zebra stretch pants, red sequin top and a large blond wig down to his shoulders. What a hoot.

His arrival cements that this is an over-the-top, melodramatic, raunchy, funny, foul-mouthed, X-rated show, enhanced by Sydney Campo's terrific choreography, Dixie Lay's musical direction, and a cast and crew that any director would kill for. And consider it's a director who filled in at the last moment and was hospitalized midway through rehearsals. The actors pitched in and "made it happen," director Dilts-Benson wrote in the program, and they deserve great praise.

Rock of Ages isn't your conventional Broadway musical. For one thing, narrator Lonny (Brady Lay) frequently talks directly to the audience and cast members, reminding one and all that this a musical, not real life, and the characters can defy the playwright if and when they want to. It has more than its share of foul language, with F-bombs and S-bombs sprinkled freely, as well as dry-humping and simulated sex, making this for mature audiences only. And, lastly, there are scantily clad pole dancers and lap dancers who would make the ladies working the gentlemen's clubs on U.S. 19 in Hudson envious.

By, golly-gee, is this show ever fun.

Stunners are Jennifer Garcia as Sherrie and Surplus as Franz, both with impressive professional acting backgrounds. Ms. Garcia's voice is perfect for this role, as she can belt with the best of Broadway. Surplus is almost a show-stealer as the swishy Franz.

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Chazz Kleber is a dream as Dennis, nailing one of the best segments of the show, along with Lay's Lonny, in Can't Fight This Feeling and making Dennis a teddy bear of a boss. Cody Ingle is just campy enough as singer Joey Primo (Beaver Hunt), with a surprisingly fine voice that could have worked nicely in almost any singing role. Anthony Agnelli is just right playing both the stiff-backed, ambitious mayor, and the aggressive talent agent in a Lionel Richie-style white suit with sleeves pushed up. Ms. Campo is superb as the cynical, shop-worn Justice, owner of the sleazy Venus strip joint, her voice ringing sweet and true in Every Rose Has Its Thorn.

As mentioned, although the show is fun and funny, it has foul language, suggestive moves, and adult themes, so is suitable for grown-ups only.

(Local tidbit tie: Mitchell High School grad Justin Matthew Sargent, who got his acting start in 1999 as the Artful Dodger in Richey Suncoast Theatre's Oliver!, played the lead role of Drew Boley in the Broadway production from March 26, 2012 through Nov. 8, 2014, with a brief departure to play the title role in Broadway's Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark in 2013. Keith Surplus, who also started his acting career at RST, went to see his pal Justin play Drew and vowed to audition for the show the first chance he got in the Tampa Bay area.)