Fierce Anticipation: April 3-5

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a blogumn by Ryan Dixon

FIERCELY ANTICIPATING


Rock of Ages

As anyone who has attended the theatre with any regularity can attest, leaving a play feeling satisfied is, like Halley’s Comet, an event whose very rareness only serves to magnify the power of the experience.

And God bless theatre critics. Like captives in solitary confinement who form emotional bonds with their malicious captors, these poor souls will often heap praise on work that doesn’t deserve it because, well… they have to praise something. Although, I can think of nothing worse for an audience member then those times when one enters a theater under the pretense of critical Hosannas only run smack dab into a brick wall of boredom.  As Ron Rosenbaum so trenchantly put it in his essay “My Theater Problem – and Ours”:

“I always seem to be seeing plays that seem utterly unlike what everyone else seems to have seen. … Is it possible I went to the wrong theater; this second-rate, self-satisfied, soporific contrivance can’t be the same stuff that people are taking seriously, can it?”

whitesnake_1It was this theatrical fatigue that in part caused me to write back in September that I only “kinda” wanted to see the new off-Broadway musical Rock of Ages.  It was after all a dreaded jukebox musical, where the songs were taken from various acts from the 80s like Journey, Pat Benatar, Night Ranger, Twisted Sister, and Whitesnake. In its short Broadway history, this musical sub-genre has seen only three hits in Mamma Mia! (ABBA), Movin’ Out (Billy Joel) and Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons), while productions based on the music of such luminaries as the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, John Lennon, Elvis, Bob Dylan and Queen were quickly banished from the Great White Way with their high notes between their legs.

In December, I traveled to New York to attend Rock of Ages with a companion who told me on the way to the theater that she despised any and all musicals without the words “Stephen” and  “Sondheim” in the program. With my long standing theatrical fatigue and her deeply held highbrow musical tastes, we weren’t going to be the easiest audience members to win over.

And the verdict, lady and gentleman of the jury?

While Rock of Ages lacked the societal dialectic of Ibsen, apocalyptic despair of Beckett and the impeccable scansion of Sondheim, it nevertheless was one the most rockin’ awesome evenings we’ve ever had in the theater.

And it seems that we weren’t alone: Rock of Ages will open on Broadway, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, this Tuesday, April 7th.

One of the great advantages Rock of Ages holds over almost every other jukebox musical is that it is not beholden to the music of one band or singer. The plot doesn’t have to go to ridiculous narrative extremes for the songs to make sense within the story or be dramatically compelling. (Kaufman and Hart it aint, but next to something like Mamma Mia!, Rock of Age’s plot has the satisfying complexity of a Feydeau farce.)

Instead of making a whole musical out of the oeuvre of, say, Asia and trying to figure out how to fit not only “Heat of the Moment” into the show’s book –which Rock of Ages does quit well — but also “Voice of America”, Rock of Ages can chose the best pieces from the grand buffet that is 1980’s song book. For example, the opening number is “Just Like Paradise”, “Here I Go Again” ends Act I, Europe’s magisterial “The Final Countdown” opens Act II, a mix of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “I Can’t fight this Feeling” serves as the 11 o’clock number and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (the most downloaded song in iTunes history, btw) satisfies as a rousing finale.

Need another reason to see the show? Four words: booze in the theater.

Rock of Ages‘ off-Broadway run felt more like a concert/musical hybrid than a traditional musical in large part because a wait staff was on hand to deliver adult beverages to the audience during the show, giving the crowd the rousing liquid courage energy of a sporting event. And, in a coup de théâtre management, for the Broadway transfer the producers negotiated with the Nederlander Organization –the owners of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre– to allow drinks to be served inside the house.  (And so far, it’s been working splendidly. Not only is Rock of Ages currently playing at 95% capacity, but its alcohol sales are three times larger than those of Wicked, which plays in a far bigger house.) Granted, it will be 75 year old Broadway house ushers from Astoria bringing you booze and not the hot unemployed actors and actresses who served drinks off-Broadway, but after three or four martinis, you could probably convince yourself that even the mezzanine’s Ethel Steinberg, despite the orthopedic shoes and receding hairline, could be a satisfactory Grandmilf.

Opens April 7th at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

 

WHY YOU SHOULD AT LEAST KINDA WANNA SEE ROCK OF AGES…


“You have to believe in yourself, that’s the secret. Even when I was in the orphanage, when I was roaming the street trying to find enough to eat, even then I thought of myself as the greatest actor in the world.” – Charlie Chaplin

The following is based on a real phone conversation that took place in January 2008:

“Hello.”
“Hey Ryan, it’s Mitch.”
“Why hello, sir. How are you doing? How’s New York?”
“I just stole a sandwich.”
“You did what???”
“Stole a sandwich. From the deli. I only have $5 in my bank account and I was so hungry. I feel so guilty. I’m almost thirty, what have I done with my life?”

rockoftheagesMitchell Jarvis was my roommate in college and we remain good friends. Since graduating from Carnegie Mellon he has been the consummate working actor, meaning that he has split his time equally between acting and starving.

Upon moving to New York City Mitch continued his college diet of Ramen noodles and Ramen noodles. Mitch’s discipline to this third world-income diet should be commended, especially during these tough times, but there were points when it proved to be an awkward hindrance, like when trying to make dinner plans with him.

On one such occasion I was visiting New York with a girl I had just started dating. We had dinner plans with Mitch and seeing that my girlfriend had never been to New York before, she was excited to try some restaurants with a real “Big Apple” flare. When we met Mitch and the discussion of where we should eat was broached, he suggested, in all sincerity, Subway*.

Knowing that my rather excitable girlfriend — who had a deep, if misguided, aversion to fast food restaurants – would have refused me any and all sexual favors for the next month if we went to Subway, I convinced Mitch to go to somewhere slightly more upscale if I paid for half his meal. Mitch agreed, we had dinner at the Times Square Olive Garden and my girlfriend withheld sexual favors for only two weeks.

For nearly another year after that dinner Mitch’s life continued to imitate the first half of Slumdog Millionaire— minus the outhouse shit bath. There were many two-week stretches where he had a one-dollar a day budget. To make enough money to feed himself, he’d hang out on subway platforms and serenade New Yorker’s with his covers of “Blackbird” and Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”. And while street performing did allow him to sometimes make up to $10 an hour, there were more than a few near-violent encounters with homeless people who were enraged that this decidedly un-homeless musician was encroaching on their panhandling turf.

Finally, after almost two years of being rejected, Mitch booked a role as an understudy in an Off-Broadway musical entitled The Watercoolers becoming, at last, the recipient of a steady paycheck.  Of course, as theater productions are ought to do, the show closed after only a few months and Mitch transitioned back to life as a subterranean troubadour.

After finding work as a waiter at Angus McIndoe, a hotspot for Broadway glitterati, Mitch formed a bond with Angus regular Kevin Stites, one of Broadway’s most successful music directors and bottle-danced his way into the chorus of the acclaimed recent Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof which first starred Alfred Molina and then later featured, to significantly less acclaim, Rosie O’Donnell and Harvey Fierstein.

Broadway success then brought Mitch that second, all-important merit badge for the New York Actor: a Law and Order appearance. In Mitch’s case it was a major guest-starring role on Law and Order: SVU playing the nebbish assistant to a cult leader.

Awash with TV money and a weekly paycheck from a Broadway show, Mitch went on a shopping spree and bought an over-priced bedroom set, some designer furniture and an Xbox 360. The total cost of these purchases essentially amounted to two months of salary, which would have come in handy as Fiddler shuttered not long after Mitch had just finished putting the Charmeuse satin silk sheets on his new Sealy Posturepedic mattress.

Broke once again, nearing the age of 30, and unable to get another acting gig (his agent dropped him not long after Fiddler closed) or even a waitering job, Mitch was at the nadir of his life and career when he entered the deli on that chilly January day, about to become the real-life embodiment of his musical dream role: Jean Valjean.

But like the titular hero of Les Misérables who finds salvation in the form of a kindly bishop**, so too did Mitch find his own salvation when, after nearly another year of struggle and with the passionate support of a new manager, he landed the co-leading role in Rock of Ages’ off-Broadway run. And now, Mitch is once again on the Broadway stage where he has personally promised me that he won’t buy any new bureau dressers for at least six months.

While providing money to help African babies with cleft palates is a noble cause, I am here to plead with you to use any discretionary income not on nameless charities, but to help prevent my dear friend Mitch Jarvis from ever stealing a sandwich again.

Go see Rock of Ages and with your support, Mitch will hopefully remain gainfully employed in the same role for the next 20 years… at which time he could seamlessly parlay his Broadway success into playing Teen Angel in Grease, singing “Beauty School Drop out” in a variety low-rent summer stock productions until his dalliances with one too many underage Sandy’s leads to arrest and imprisonment. Then, after finishing a sure-to-be 20-year sentence, Mitch will be released a broken and broke man, forced once again to have a diet consisting only of Ramen noodles. Yes folks, the life of the actor.

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*There’s nothing wrong with Subway. One of my fondest childhood memories was going to Subway after CCD class (this was before I stopped believing in God) and ordering a footlong meatball sub and a six-inch seafood and crab sub, which was, until Subway stopped serving top-shelf fake crab, my third favorite fast food item of all time with only Taco Bell’s Double Decker Taco supreme with no tomatoes and McDonald’s McRib surpassing it. Thinking about the amount of food I consumed during my adolescence, it’s amazing that I’m not writing this column morbidly obese and in a wheelchair.

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**For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, start watching this section from the 10th Anniversary concert version of Les Miz at the five-minute mark:


WOULDN’T GO IF YOU PAID ME

Rock of Ages

Haven’t you just read the past 1,900 words? There is no reason NOT to go see Rock of Ages! Well, unless of course you hate 80’s music. If that’s the case, you’re probably better off paying to have your nails individually ripped from your fingers.


FIERCE ANTICIPATION BONUS MATERIAL

Can’t get enough of Rock of Ages? Here is episode five of the on-going Rock of Ages web series: (You can find all the other episodes here.)