"Rock of Ages," the musical about big hair, big dreams and '80s metal, returns to Akron next week when the over-the-top show's 10th anniversary tour plays E.J. Thomas Hall on Tuesday and Wednesday.
It's not often that a rock musical's five-piece band gets in on the action on stage. But in this show — set on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood — band members dress in metalhead costumes and play an integral part in the story as backup musicians for narcissistic lead singer character Stacee Jaxx.
In this jukebox musical, the band and cast rock out to 28 classic '80s tunes by Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison and more, with iconic songs ranging from Poison's "Nothin' But a Good Time" to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'. " The show, which never takes itself too seriously, is a loving mockery of '80s excess, including its famous hair bands and rad fashions.
In this story, smalltown Kansas girl Sherrie, an aspiring actress, arrives at the Sunset Strip and meets rock 'n' roll dreamer Drew in the Bourbon Room club. The club is in danger of being demolished by German developers, so owner Dennis decides to bring Jaxx and his band in for a farewell concert in an attempt to save it.
Boy meets girl, boy loses girl and various complications ensue, all set to the backdrop of '80s arena hits.
Club manager Lonny serves as an irreverent narrator who keeps up the raunchy humor throughout. The show, which also contains sexual situations, is for mature audiences.
It's a silly story and characters break the fourth wall to poke fun at other characters, the era and even musical theater itself. The main attraction is, of course, the '80s tunes.
'Most fun musical'
The tour's music supervisor, Brandon Ethridge, has kept this show's rock rolling since he was the musical director for the first national tour in 2010-11.
The classical pianist-turned-rock-keyboardist has a rock pedigree that ranges from music directing his own Queen tribute band to currently associate conducting another feel-good rock musical — "School of Rock" on Broadway.
" 'Rock of Ages' was and is by far the most fun musical I've ever played,'' he said by phone from New York. "Because you're onstage. You can see the audience, the audience can see you. You're in costume. You're rocking out. It's so different than 'School of Rock,' where we're in a room all by ourselves and no one sees us," he said of the offstage band at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre.
This time around, as the "Rock of Ages" music supervisor, Ethridge, 50, enjoyed having input into the show's creative process during the rehearsal and tech periods. The tour launched late last month in Boston.
Ethridge's many duties as music supervisor included coordinating the music department with the lighting department so the sophisticated lighting programming is synchronized perfectly with the live musicians. He also worked with the director to make sure the songs are played in such a way that audiences can understand all the lyrics and dialogue, and he helped create the show's scene-change music. Finally, he helped the onstage musical director with quality control by serving as a pair of ears from the audience.
After working to launch the tour, Ethridge will check in on it after Thanksgiving in Grand Prairie, Texas. He'll see then if any improvements, especially with the band's sound balance, need to be made.
Metal and big hair
"Rock of Ages," which opened off-Broadway in 2008, made its Broadway debut in 2009 and ran for 2,328 performances before closing in early 2015. It last played E.J. Thomas Hall in December 2011, which was the show's Northeast Ohio premiere.
Ethridge attributes the musical's longevity to the fact that it's fun and full of great music. Unlike most other jukebox musicals, the creators were able to choose from a whole decade of music from scores of bands.
That includes the straight-up '80s rock of bands like Journey, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Styx, as well as the "kind of fun, fake heavy metal" of bands with "really pretty hair" such as Poison, he said.
The 10th anniversary tour, the music supervisor said, has no video, which was used heavily in the last tour that came to Akron. It also has different lighting and a completely different set that's reminiscent of a rock concert stage.
"It's totally rock and roll,'' Ethridge said. "And the lighting is from sublime to bombastic."
There's also authenticity in the musical's band: "Rock of Ages" drummer Chris Moore was in a band that played the Sunset Strip in the mid '80s. A producer offered them a record deal at the time but Moore's band mates, who were worried about selling out, didn't bite.
"Rock of Ages" is a nostalgic musical experience for many who came of age in the '80s, and a retro experience for younger audiences.
In this show, '80s smash hits are not only arranged with musical chorus harmonies, they also become part of several musical mashups.
"I think that the music you grow up with is going to define you, whether you like it or not,'' Ethridge said. "I think 'Rock of Ages' has that wink of the eye where we know these are not the greatest masterpieces of the past. It's not The Beatles. But it's just the music we love."
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.