With tongue placed firmly in its proverbial cheek, the rocking cast of the Belfast Music & Drama Society’s production of Rock Of Ages sent-up the 80s international glam metal rock scene with drum thundering accuracy in this musical comedy based on some of the genre’s biggest hits.
Some jukebox ‘story’ musicals work well and others would work better in a choreographed concert format … So, don’t worry if, after a while, you give up on trying to follow the corny, complicated and contrived storyline, as it is there only as a vehicle (probably a tour bus!) for the show’s totally irreverent humour and its all-important rock-filled score of evergreen anthems.
This typical story of a small-town girl moving to the city hoping to make it big is different in one aspect of this show, as one performer gets to break the theatrical ‘fourth wall’ and to directly talk to the audience from the start.
Set in the 1980s, this production is blessed with a most impressive set.
It maybe one of the older-style theatrical ones, but John Wright’s brilliantly detailed and authentic, yet practical, set is one of the best to grace a local stage for sometime.
In addition to its large concealed truck which serves as a mayor’s office, a club toilet and a club office, this dual-level set also boasts a bar, tacky-looking club signage, an authentic car for the first date scene, plus walls that are plastered with posters, vinyl records.
Another of its highlights is its great wooden staircase (although I would liked to have seen this used more for performer positioning and to give more overall height variation to the performances).
Sandy McAllister’s lighting plot certainly got its chance to shine here as it varied from being atmospheric and theatrically sensitive one minute to being good enough for any rock band’s performance the next.
Despite his youthfulness, Director, Jordan Walsh, had a great understanding and sensitivity for the piece and did the story justice in this ‘in your face’ production, with lots of big hair, mascara, eye-liner and head bandannas (… and that was only the men), while the girls, mostly in the form of long-legged women dressed in black, were also of their time and of their genre.
Alex McFarlane’s movement and choreography was varied, but also always of its time with both the Act 1 and Act 2 finale numbers, Here I Go Again and Don’t Stop Believin’, each providing excellent choreography with lots of rock posing movements, foot-stomping and hand-clapping to offer two energetic endings.
The sleazy and sexy seductiveness of movement during Any Way You Want It/I Wanna Rock was spot-on, while Dennis and Lonny’s surprise duet, Can’t Fight This Feeling, was suitably awkward with its apt comic choreography.
Although not a conventional Broadway musical, this show has been very successful both on the Great White Way and in the West End.
However, by its very nature with loud rock classics by the likes of Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Steve Perry, Poison and Europe, there is an inherent problem with this show.
The biggest challenge for every production of the show is trying to successfully balance the sound between the, by necessity, loud band and the performers, especially when the music has to underscore dialogue … an almost impossible task.
Indeed, this issue did raise its ugly head here at times during Act 1 (well, it was the opening night!), but well done to sound man, James McAllister, for quickly getting it under control and balancing a close to perfect Act 2.
Musical Director, Wilson Shields, and his small 5-piece band rocked the house as required to offer the best musical backdrop for the young performers here and highlights included the salute to the era, I Wanna Rock, Wanted Dead Or Alive and The Final Countdown.
Amid all of the big loud rock anthems, there were more gentle musical offerings of note, like More Than Words/To Be with You/Heaven, Waiting For A Girl Like You and I Want To Know What Love Is; all in the rock ballad format, boasting beautiful choral harmonies from the ensemble, as did the impressive, High Enough, and the visually well-staged Every Rose Has Its Thorn.
Quickly moving from a show last week as Jesus to a sound God in a rock club here, Matthew Campbell – as Lonny Barnett (a great character surname for someone with big 80s hair) – does a good job as the show’s narrator.
With solid performances from both, Harry Lambert’s Drew and Karen Hawthorne’s Sherrie, turned in some great vocals and were well-matched as the aspiring rocker and aspiring actress, respectively.
One of the most outstanding performances came from Sean Harkin as the rock idol, Stacee Jaxx, because his rocking vocals really suited this musical style and he also totally looked the part.
Oprah Devitt gave a nicely balanced portrayal as the harsh strip club manager, Justice, who takes no nonsense from her lap-dancing girls, yet is a motherly figure to them when she needs to be.
Ruairi McAlinden had some great comic timing in the role of Franz and it was nice to see husband and wife team, Simon and Wendy Pyper, on stage together.
There was also great support from Niall McClean, Sarah McFarlane, Tony Owens and the energetic ensemble.
As this show must end on Saturday, this is your ‘Final Countdown’ to get tickets to a piece of musical theatre that is even rockier than the Giant’s Causeway!
Rock Of Ages
Belfast Music & Drama Society
Waterfront Hall’s Studio Theatre, Belfast
Tue 5 Sept until Sat 9 Sept, 2017
Photo Credit: Melissa Gordon of Gorgeous Photography