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REVIEW: Rock Of Ages at Sunderland Empire Theatre

Rock Of Ages

Sunderland Empire

Until Saturday 10 September 2022

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Rock Of Ages is a musical built round rock songs from the 1980s, featuring numbers by performers like Styx, Whitesnake, Journey, Bon Jovi and Pat Benatar. It is set in an iconic, if run-down, rock bar on LA’s Sunset Strip, threatened by developers, and features a love story between two hopeful performers from small town USA.  The talented cast do full justice to the numbers, though the overall impression is more of a rock and roll adult pantomime than a true musical and its attitudes to women are unashamedly of the same era as the songs. Nevertheless, you cannot deny its crowd-pleasing vibe.

The show was written by Chris D’Arienzo and it first played in Los Angeles in 2005. It went on to Broadway, where it ran for 2328 performances. The secret of its success? Judging from this production, that would be the talent and good-natured energy of the cast, together with the nostalgic appeal of the songs.

The show opens in The Bourbon Room, run by Dennis Dupree who is played by Coronation Street’s Kevin Kennedy, better known as Curly Watts. He makes a believably gruff but kindly aging rocker and has a decent set of pipes.  Aspiring rocker, Drew Boley is a busboy at the bar. Sam Turrell brings an excellent sweet rock voice and an amiable presence to the role. He falls for just-arrived would-be actress Sherrie Christian, played by Gabriella Williams with a strong flexible voice and good moves, and gets her a job at the bar.

Meanwhile a pair of cartoonish German developers are bribing the mayor to clean up Sunset Strip, which means the demolition of the bar.

Dennis uses past favours owed to bring Rock Star Stacee Jaxx to play the last gig with his band before they split up because of his monstrous ego and general unpleasantness. Cameron Sharp plays the role with gusto. Drew manages to convince Dennis to let him open for the band, based on a song he has written about his unexpressed love for Sherrie.

It is pointless to dwell too long on the plot since the writer clearly didn’t. The stage is set for these familiar characters to play out the plot to its unsurprising conclusion.

The elephant in the room, however, or perhaps that should be a wasp, is the character of Lonny, played with boundless energy and absolutely no restraint by Joe Gash. A strutting, sashaying, androgenous rock pixie who serves as narrator and chief comic, he breaks the 4th wall throughout and plays out lots of schtick with the audience, much in the manner of a panto but somewhat more adult. It is hard to say which of his apparent ad-libs are actually scripted but he has the essence of the show in his bones and contributes much to the merriment.

The show is well-produced, with a convincing set by Morgan Large, who also contributed the authentic-looking costumes. Nick Winston’s direction keeps the show slickly moving along, though he can’t solve the problem that the  characters are chiefly drawn in two dimensions and the first act is fifteen minutes too long. His choreography is excellent and is well-performed by the principals and the hard-working and hugely talented ensemble. In the midst of all the rock, Natalie Winsor brings a refreshing bluesy interlude with her smoky, sensuous vibe and a strong belt.

Behind all this stands a terrific five-piece band, led by MD Liam Holmes, who deliver the rock sound of the 80s, playing out of their skins throughout the show.

This is a show of short skirts, long hair and misogynistic attitudes, so very representative of the period it is depicting but, first and last, it is a glam-metal nostalgia fest, delivered by an exceptional cast of singers.  


Review: Jonathan Cash

Photos: The Other Richard



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