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The curious appeal of Rock of Ages

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Rock of Ages is a musical built around rock anthems of the 1980s. It had a run in Toronto, and is playing at Kitchener’s Centre in the Square this week.

But despite good notices, I’d been dragging my feet about seeing this one. I was a teenager in the 1980s, but musically, I was into the New Wave British stuff: Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet, Billy Idol, U2, Culture Club, Howard Jones… The stuff in this musical? Journey, Whitesnake, REO Speedwagon, Poison… That would be the 1980s music I didn’t like. At all. The musical even includes possibly the worst rock song of all time, “We Built This City” by Starship.

Finally, though, I was lured in by a package deal involving the show + dinner at Verses. (Though note the advertising for this is deceptive; you don’t get any discount on the ticket, just on the meal.)

As the musical began, it became clear that a big part of the premise was trying to save the Los Angeles Sunset strip from being cleaned up and redeveloped. Seriously? Los Angeles? OK, I’ve never been there, but my impression, and what I’ve heard from people who have been, is that this isn’t a city that inspires great passion for preservation. The place seems like more of a necessary evil than anything else.

Still, I found I couldn’t help but be drawn in by the good-natured vibe of all the whole thing. Take, for example, the horrid “We Built this City”. This plays back as an echo from the chorus from the German developer who wants to tear everything down and start anew. “But we built this city on rock’n’roll!” It’s a short snippet, it’s performed better than the original (how could it be done worse?), and it’s funny.

And that sort of thing just keeps winning you over. It’s not taking itself seriously. One character keeps breaking the fourth wall (rather 90s, that) to comment on the play’s structure and how it plays with the musical conventions. That’s funny, and so are a lot of the other bits. A lot of the singers, particular strip club owner Mother and lead actor Drew, have fantastic voices. Only parts of the songs are performed, then you’re on to another.

And, well, not *all* the songs suck. I do have some fondness for “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”—much more comfortable here than in the original, as sung by male actor Franz, possibly the funniest character of all, and “Cum on Feel the Noize”, soundtrack to an exuberant moment at the rock club, and even “We’re Not Gonna Take It”—even though it’s used to protest the destruction of a sleazy rock club.

It’s also kind of a sexy musical, with the attractive young cast making the most of their assets. Male and female cast, I would add. (Even though I don’t really remember the 1980s as being so sex-drenched, but whatever.) And I did love the unexpected, big gay love story in the middle.

So, I clapped, I cheered, I wished I had bought tickets earlier so that I would have been in better seats. It is a pretty impressive achievement to put together such an appealing show on such an unpromising premise.

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