I was never a metal music fan in high school. That fact takes on extra significance when you know that I graduated from Wando High in 1988, right in the thick of the 80s metal craze. No, while a lot of my friends were banging their heads to the likes of Poison, Warrant, Guns 'N' Roses, and Stryper (yes, Stryper, that yellow and black striped Christian metal juggernaut), I was far more interested in INXS, RUN-DMC, R.E.M., and U2 (apparently bands that used acronyms or initials ruled my life back then. Sure, I was aware of the metal bands. You couldn't turn on MTV back then without seeing some long-haired, spandex-clad, skinny lead singer belting out a tune over an onslaught of thundering guitars. Metal was just never my bag.
Now Alan Coker? There, my friend, is a disciple of metal. Coker—better known as the marketing manager at the North Charleston Coliseum, Performing Arts Center, and Convention Center—attended North Charleston High about the same time I was at Wando. He's been a friend for years, but we didn't know each other back then. In conversations, we've learned some interesting and potential embarrassing things about one another. For instance, I was the Wando High mascot for one football season, meaning I dressed up in Native American garb and generally made a fool of myself on the sidelines during games. Forget that I was one of the bigger guys in school, and that the coach would have loved to have had me on the team's defensive line. No, I had caught the showbiz bug early, and doing push-ups when the football team scored was as close as I ever got to organized athletics.
I learned early on that in his high school years Coker was a rabid, unapologetic fan of metal. He even had one of those sweet, sweet mullets. I tried to find a picture, but Alan has apparently destroyed all incriminating evidence, much like I did with any photos of me as the Wando Warrior.
Anyway, a couple of years ago, Alan came back from his annual trip to New York City raving about this musical he'd seen. "It was called Rock of Ages, and it was awesome!," said Coker, his eyes wide with excitement.
"What was it about?," I asked.
Coker's one word answer: "Metal!"
I went into Thursday night's performance of "Rock of Ages" at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center with the same sort of attitude I had about metal in the 80s. I expected cheesiness on a ridiculously high level. Instead, I had my face rocked off.
For those that haven't seen the musical, or who might only have seen the film version released earlier this year (which I heard was dreadful), here's the story in a nutshell: midwestern girl Sherrie arrives in Los Angeles sometime in the mid to late 80s, ready to seek fame and fortune as a film actress. She soon meets Drew, who works as a barback at the Bourbon Room, a fictional rock club on the Sunset Strip. Drew secretly wishes to be a rock star. The pair are instantly smitten with one another, and their romantic ups and downs weave through the musical's storyline, which also involves the city's efforts to close down the Bourbon Room to make way for retail space. Sounds like a pretty typical plot for a musical, right? Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl has a fling with a famous rocker who once teabagged a llama.
Whoa, hold on, stop the clock.
Teabag? Llama? Oh, yeah, I guess I should tell you that, much like the musical genre that is heavy metal, Rock of Ages is about as irreverent as Broadway musicals get. There are scantily clad strippers, foppish German boys, and a character named Lonny who seems to have 50 different ways of flipping someone the bird (my personal favorite was miming the creation of a balloon animal, which emerged as a middle finger). This isn't necessarily a musical you want to take kids under 15 to, unless you're cool with said kids seeing gyrating pole dancers, simulated sex acts in a bathroom stall, references to crystal meth and, yes, teabagging an innocent llama.
Still, for what I was expecting going in, I came out of Rock of Ages with a newfound respect for the music I shunned as a music snobbish teen. The way the show's creators work songs by Poison, Whitesnake, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Night Ranger, David Lee Roth, Warrant, Extreme, Journey, and even freakin' Quarterflash (when was the last time you heard that band mentioned?) into the storyline was pretty amazing. It shouldn't work, and yet it does—amazingly well.
Among the cast were a few standouts: Dominique Scott, who played Drew, has an amazing voice, and several times during the show held a note way longer than any mere mortal should be able to; Matt Ban as Dennis, the burn-out hippie owner of the Bourbon Room, is a hoot, and his onstage antics are topped only by that of Lonny (played by Justin Colombo), the club's sound guy and assistant to Dennis. Colombo does double duty as both a character in the show and the story's narrator, and he steals just about every scene he's in. Especially hilarious is when he declares his love for another character (I won't ruin it by telling you who) while the couple sings "Can't Fight This Feeling" by REO Speedwagon. Universo Pereira, who plays rocker Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruse played the character in the film version), is also great. Equally amazing are Stephen Michael Kane, who plays Franz in hilarious over-the-top fashion, and Amma Osei, who plays strip club owner Justice. Man, does that woman have a voice.
There were also a few unscripted moments, such as when someone in the back started singing Extreme's "More Than Words," matching the actors onstage word for word and actually holding thier own against the miked performers. There was also the moment when Jaxx slingshotted a pair of panties to an older gentleman in the front row. Instead of acting like it hadn't happened, the guy swung them around above his head, earning a huge laugh and applause from the crowd.
The whole show takes place primarily on one set, which occasionally undergoes slight modifications to fit different scenes, and the use of space is pretty amazing. Rather than being banished to the orchestra pit, the band—which consists of a drummer, keyboardist, bassist, and two guitarists—is right out on the stage, doubling as the Bourbon Room's house band.
In the end though, it is the music that is the real star of the show. Normally when I go to see a musical, I don't listen to the cast recording first, because I want to experience the music as the story unfolds. That's what happened when I saw Wicked earlier this year, and it was a great experience. That obviously didn't happen with Rock of Ages. Every song in the show was a bonafide radio hit in the 80s. I'll admit, hearing all those familiar songs made me pine for my high school days, which is a bit weird, since I hated high school. The music also reminded me that I'm not getting any younger.
Mostly though I was thoroughly entertained by a hilariously bawdy musical that did anything but take itself seriously. "Rock of Ages" continues Friday night at the PAC for one more performance. If you're on the fence about seeing it, I urge you to go. Hell, Alan Coker hereby commands you to go, especially if you're still rocking a sweet, sweet mullet in 2012. Coker currently doesn't, by the way, but you can tell he misses his.