Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: "Rock of Ages"

As raucous as hewavy metal itself, the national tour of "Rock of Ages" comes to town, at the Merriam Theater. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: "Rock of Ages"

Dominique Scott and the cast of "Rock of Ages" at the Merriam Theater.
Dominique Scott and the cast of "Rock of Ages" at the Merriam Theater. Kate Egan

By Howard Shapiro

Electric, cocky, boistrous, kinetic, sometimes smart, sometimes dumb, and accelerating with hugely impressive speed — that’s the big picture of Rock of Ages, the Broadway juke-box musical that reclaims the heavy-metal ’80s.

The show’s national tour, here at the Merriam Theater through the weekend, is better than on Broadway because of its killer cast, which strikes me as even more polished. That’s not to say that the Broadway version slumps by comparison — it’s been playing two years, is just short of 1,000 performances, and is also more magnetic as it rolls along.

The show is loud, as it should be. Too loud, though, at some points at the Merriam, where the bangin’ backup band ocassionally overwhelms the cast. At Tuesday’s opening, some of it was also erratically miked, especially the audio for a minor character who figures in a plot pivot.

But, really, who cares about the plot — an iconic heavy-metal club on L.A.’s Sunset Strip is about to be destroyed by conniving redevelopers, like the wrecked relationship between the show’s heavy-metal wannabe and his new-girl-in-town. It’s cute — and so are the two unrequited-lovebirds, Shannon Mullen and Dominique Scott, who have the perfect pitch and lung-power for the songs.

Even though the plot is secondary to the musical numbers, Rock of Ages draws repeat audience members who came of age in the ’80s; to be fair, they probably identify with the story as much as the music. That music is an assortment of hits that range from Journey’s “Anyway You Want It” to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” to Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” — pieces or full performances of 31 songs in all.

The numbers are cleverly woven into the story, which features friendly-but-zonked characters who seem to have been born in a Disney cartoon studio and were doing just fine until they happened upon a cache of acid. Just about everyone in the script is extreme — especially the narrator, played with in-your-face menace by Justin Colombo, personifying the only jukebox-musical character who resembles Shakespeare’s Puck.

Others also stand out, particularly Steven Michael Kane as the beaten-down son of the German developer who insists on the club’s demise, and Matt Nolan as a lead-singing superstar.

It’s the raucous rock that grabs me, though, in a show that really revs in its second half, and  the dancing — wildly fluid choreography by Kelly Devine, recreated for the tour by Marcos Santana. You may hold your nose at some of the  stupid jokes, you may hold your ears from the musical amp, but whenever the dancing begins, your eyes will fix on the cast. That’s when the Rock in Rock of Ages hits you.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,

Rock of Ages: Presented by Kimmel Center and the Shubert Organization at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St., through Sunday. Tickets: $20-$100. Information: 215-893-1999 or  

About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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