REVIEW: Rock of Ages at Trustus Theatre

Rock of Ages is a musical devoted to the idea of Rock Music as a distinctive character, or caricature, in the popular imagination. And while the actual story of rock ‘n’ roll may be a complicated, complex, and contradictory one, our idea of it is not—it’s sleazy, loud, showy, and, above all, gloriously debauched. It’s about Sunset Strip sleaze, leather-clad excesses, and arena rock choruses that thud through your head no matter how much beer, booze, or other substances threaten to overwhelm. It might occasionally be dumb, but it’s often with a knowing wink and rarely without a double dose of fun.

That, in a nutshell, is what the musical, which was a massive success during its lengthy run on Broadway, and the particular version of it that Trustus is offering, is all about. Artistic director Chad Henderson, who also plays the grizzled club owner Dennis Dupree, points this out explicitly in his program notes, that the troupe’s primary endeavor here is to offer “Nothing but a Good Time,” and they are hell-bent on delivering. How much they succeed though depends, to a certain extent, on how much you are willing to revel in the poppy glam metal songs that are the bulk of this jukebox-style musical. The narrative is more than a bit thin, to the point where the comedic meta-narrative commentary is the only thing that can save it, and it never rises above a sort of rote sense of genre. But that’s not the point—it’s the nostalgic power of these songs, their sound, and their mythos, all of which is difficult to deny.

Luckily, the usually capable casts of Trustus have always boasted standout singers (and crack stage bands), and Rock of Ages is no exception. Songs like “Don’t Stop Believin,’” “Here I Go Again,” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” prove they were almost built to double as great musical numbers, and when the full cast launches into one of these familiar choruses it’s hard not to feel like things are right with the world. Individual performers may shine or falter at certain moments, but Trustus company standouts like Katie Lietner as the female lead Sherrie or Michael Hazin as the bar manager/ostentatious narrator, make it abundantly clear why they are familiar sights on the Thigpen stage.

But while Leitner is great in her role and the kind of powerhouse singer the part needs, she and the male protagonist Drew (played by Rory Gilbert) end up a little sidelined despite being ostensible leads. The weakness of their romantic plot line—she arriving in L.A. to be an actress but ending up as a stripper, he as an inspiring rock star-turned-fledgling boy band hopeful—makes them a little less memorable compared to the purely humor-driven B and C plots. It’s in those where the real chemistry and spark of the show happens. Henderson and Hazin obviously have some stage chemistry and comedy chops in their bromance friendship and constant fourth-wall-breaking commentary that the fact that they are trying to save Dennis’ rock club almost gets lost in the mix. Similarly, Kayla Cahill’s performance as the protest-leading Regina and Cody Lovell’s German businessman-turned-candy-purveyor sparkle in their own budding romance and brief stage time. Too, Jason Stokes’ turn as the spoiled rock star gone to seed, Stacee, is also quite winning.

But again, focusing on individual performances is a bit of misdirection here, for any lengthy attention to the plot detracts from the blown-own spectacle of the music itself. Director Dewey Scott-Wiley wisely puts the band in serious costumes and places them prominently right up front on stage, so even when not performing the need to keep the music central was apparent. Music Director Chris Cockrell brings plenty of the necessary glam and pizazz to fit the part, and his crew cranks through these tunes with glee. The scenic design itself was also quite clever, utilizing some scaffolding, and a few stairs, doors, and curtains to conjure up a number of different settings in a blink of an eye. So while not strictly necessary, the production notes here rang gracefully.

In the end, though, this is about as critic-proof a play as you can get, with the pure, unfettered (guilty?) pleasure of the songs themselves in the driver’s seat. Henderson notes that there are some parallels to a seedy rock club being challenged by a more bland business takeover has some interesting parallels to the history of Trustus in the now-sleek Vista neighborhood, and it’s tough not to draw some connections between our current growth-hungry (although also arts-supporting) mayor and the one in the play, but leading you down that road won’t be particularly fruitful. Spray that hair up, throw some glitter in the air and, uh, “come on feel the noise?” – Kyle Petersen

Disclaimer: Chad Henderson is married to the reviewer’s sister-in-law. This made his depiction of Dennis no more nor less ridiculous, although it’s not clear whether the same can be said of his ultimate fate.

Rock of Ages runs through July 1—for times and ticket information head to trustus.org.

 

Horror, Camp, Comedy, and Splatter Come Together in Trustus Theatre’s Gloriously Gory "Evil Dead: The Musical" - a review by Jillian Owens

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What could possibly go wrong? Ash (played by Michael Hazin) is just an average S-Mart employee who wants to spend a relaxing spring break at a creepy abandoned cabin in the woods. Joining him on this vacation are his sweetheart, Linda (played by Elisabeth Baker), his jerk of a friend, Scotty (played by Patrick Dodds), his jerk of a friend’s recent hookup, Shelly (played by Abigail Ludwig), and his socially-awkward buzzkill of a little sister, Cheryl (played by Jodie Cain Smith.) When a mysterious trap door in the floor flies open, the fellas decide to investigate.

(L-R) Jodie Cain Smith, Elisabeth Baker, Michael Hazin, Patrick Dodds, Abigail Ludwig - rehearsal by  Richard Arthur Király - Photography

Michael Hazin and Patrick Dodds - - rehearsal by  Richard Arthur Király - Photography

Unless you’re -- as Scotty would say (and says repeatedly) -- “a stupid bitch,” you’ve probably figured out that this is the standard set-up for countless horror movies, and that there is no possible way for this to end well for our young friends. The group discovers a tape recorder and a very strange book, written in Latin. The bizarrely helpful voice on the tape (contributed by Scott Blanks) reveals that they hold the Necronomicon, a book of the dead bound in human flesh and written in human blood that has the power to unleash an army of some pretty catty Candarian demons upon the world. They, of course, play the transcription of the cursed words and release these aforementioned demons. And what do you do when being attacked by demons? You sing a song (“You stupid bitch!”)

Michael Hazin and Elisabeth Baker - rehearsal by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

Even the most pedestrian lovers of campy horror films can guess that this musical is based on the three films of the Evil Dead franchise: Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead 2 (1987), and Army of Darkness (1992.) The musical version, (created by George Reinblatt, Christopher Bond, Frank Cipolla, and Melissa Morris) was originally produced in 2003 in Toronto, Ontario where its success lead it to Off Broadway in 2006. The musical version combines the plots of the first two films, and contains several Army of Darkness references as well.

Jodie Cain Smith

The songs in the show are silly and fun, and reminiscent of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Song titles include, "All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons," “Bit-Part Demon","Do the Necronomicon", and –my personal favorite- “"What the F*ck Was That?" The music isn’t particularly challenging, and it certainly isn’t brilliant, but it’s also not trying to be. The simple score allowed director Chad Henderson to assemble a cast of very funny actors, some of whom are also very strong singers.

(L-R) Amy Brower and Michael Hazin -

Michael Hazin pulls off the role of Ash with a terrific Bruce Campbell (star of the film series) swagger and a commanding voice, and Elisabeth Baker was an obvious choice for the role of Linda, his sweet love interest. She’s also no stranger to musical theatre, and it shows. Matthew DeGuire seems an unlikely Jake (a rugged and sort of sketchy Mountain Man) which makes his role all the funnier and he nails every note. The rest of the cast’s strength lies primarily in their comedic abilities...and that’s okay. Jodie Cain Smith’s Cheryl is hilarious, both pre- and post- Deadite (the term for bodies possessed by Candarian demons), even if some of her numbers pushed her out of her comfortable vocal range. Amy Brower is the most melodramatic archaeologist you’ll ever meet, with some serious wardrobe malfunctions that lead to much laughter, and Patrick Dodds is a complete and utter jerkoff as Scotty, which in this case is a compliment.

Ash vs. the Deadites - "Come and get some!"- rehearsal photo  by Richard Arthur Király - Photography

Evil Dead: the Musical is the definitely the first musical I’ve ever been to that featured a “Splatter Zone.” That’s right - this stage adaptation maintains the high levels of campy gore established in the films, and if you’re feeling particularly fearless, you can choose to be covered in fake blood as the body count rises. You’ll also get to see a beheaded corpse with a grudge, a feisty dismembered hand, and a really unpleasant evil moose. Scenic Designers Brandon McIver and Baxter Engle and Prop Designer Jillian Peltzman have made this production a 4-D experience.

Evil Dead: The Musical is a must-see for horror fans, fans of all things funny, and fans of really strange musical adaptations. Go ahead...heed the calling of the Deadites...Join Us...at Trustus Theatre.

~ Jillian Owens

Evil Dead: The Musical runs through Saturday, July 26; call 803- 254-9732 or visit www.trustus.org for ticket information.  Also, be sure to check out the artwork of Sean McGuinness, aka That Godzilla Guy, the featured artist in the Gallery at Trustus for the run of the production.