Rock of Ages

At the James M. Nederlander Theatre

by Dan Zeff

Chicago – This week audiences are invited to step into a rock ‘n’ roll time machine called “Rock of Ages” at the Nederlander Theatre, returning them to the 1980’s in America, where the hair was long, the jeans tight, the guitars loud, and bands like Bon Jovi, Poison, Foreigner, Styx, and REO Speedwagon were all the rage.

“Rock of Ages” opened on Broadway in 2009, had a huge run, and is now traveling the country in what is billed as the 10th anniversary tour. It’s really a rock concert wrapped around a series of silly and delightful mini plots shrewdly concocted by book author Chris D’Arienzo. A visit to the Nederlander will be a great nostalgic trip for attendees entering early middle age, but on opening night a large number of teenage girls were present, perhaps in training for the arrival of “Frozen” later in the season. But the pleasures of the show are accessible to anyone with an open mind on rock music, regardless of age, gender, or sexual preference.

“Rock of Ages” is set in Hollywood and Los Angeles in 1987 at the peak of the decade’s rock scene. The setting is the Bourbon Club, a nightclub on the Sunset Strip threatened with closing by the machinations of a cartoon German real estate tycoon and his wimpy son (Hertz and Franz respectively). The intrusive foreigners want to knock down the club and replace it with a housing development. There is also a love story that that brings together Drew, the club’s young floor sweeper hoping to break into big time rock as a singer-guitarist, and Sherrie, a new arrival to California from a small town in Kansas, likewise with ambitions to be a rock star.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniels

Our guide for the evening is Lonnie, who keeps the audience hip on major storyline developments, addressing the audience directly and weaving among the characters like the MC in “Cabaret,” only funnier. A rock band remains on stage the entire show, supplying the heavy metal accompaniment. There are a dozen and a half performers in the cast and they deliver a continual flow of anthems from the 1980’s (the playbill unaccountably omits a list of the numbers but they must be in the dozens). Everyone in the show sings up a storm, their songs absorbed into the ramshackle narrative like they were composed specifically for the show, like the ABBA stand-alone songs digested into “Mamma Mia!”

What garnishes “Rock of Ages” into a great piece of entertainment is its sense of humor. The show doesn’t take itself seriously, mocking the attitudes and music of the decade, but without condescension. The humor is wry and witty and sometimes adult. The production could probably be rated a hard PG-13, with its references to sex and drugs and occasional profanities, but I saw and heard nothing beyond the boundaries of a prime time television sitcom.

Anthony Nuccio and Katie LaMark play Drew and Sherrie, who find the course of true love pretty rocky until they come out happily at the end. LaMark’s Sherrie is a pretty hard-edged lass to emerge from a small Midwestern town to face the challenges of the big city, but she sells every song, whether it’s rock or country. The same goes for Nuccio, who can hold a high note forever with undiminished volume. John-Michael Breen plays Lonnie, our guide for the narrative with a large singing voice and a solid comedian’s touch in jokes and one-liners.

The trio of central performances is augmented by outstanding singing (and often acting) by Ryan M. Hunt as the rock club’s beleaguered manager Dennis. Kristina Walz is a community activist battling the German invaders. Sam Harvey impersonates Stacee Jaxx, a caricature of a preening self involved rock diva. Kenya Hamilton plays the most realistic characters in the show, singing with force and emotion every time. Andrew Tebo and Chris Renalds are the visiting father and son German predators. The hard working ensemble is rounded out by complementary efforts from Darrell Purcell, Jr., Brenna Wahl, Emily Croft, Michael Bojtos, Kyle Jurassic, Mark LaDuke, Carlina Parker, Stephen Rochet, and Zoe Unkovich.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel

The touring production is directed by Martha Banta and choreographed by Janet Rothermel, both of whom superbly capture the energy and sensibility of the decade. A special shout out goes to Cynthia Nordstrom for her costume designs that take us back to the 1980’s in all the period’s color and thrift shop extravagance. Mike Baldassari designed the highly active lighting plan and Cody Spencer designed the sound plan in all its ear-grabbing volume. David Gallo is credited as “visual storyteller,” which must be a 1980’s term for scenery designer, Gallo’s all purpose a basic metal bi-level construction serves the continuous action well. Marshall Keating conducts the boiling hot band.

“Rock of Ages” starts a little slowly and maybe goes on a bit too long, but by the first intermission the show is running on high octane straight to the rousing finale. The youthful cast’s musical motor never diminishes. It’s impressive to consider that the ensemble must meet the physical demands of this high intensity singing and dancing eight shows a week.

By a quirk of scheduling, “Rock of Ages” is the third musical inspired by the songs of the 1980’s to play in Chicagoland this late winter. The first two are pretty inadequate (one has already left town and the other is still running in a suburban theater).Maybe it’s the law of averages that one production would finally come up big. For viewers of a certain age, “Rock of Ages” will be a joyous reunion with their youth. For those who missed out on the 1980’s zeitgeist, this musical provides a sizzling introduction into the culture of the time, once considered subversive but now almost endearing in hindsight. What a pity “Roc k of Ages” is only in Chicago for a week.

“Rock of Ages” gets a rating of

“Rock of Ages” is playing at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street, through April 28. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $85. Visit

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