I walked into the Bangor Opera House on Friday night fully prepared to dislike Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Rock of Ages.” But, then, Andrew Crowe lurched onto the stage in pleather pants, a fake fur coat and charisma that could not be contained. I was gone.
Gone back to Sept. 8, 1967, when I watched Jim Morrison in real leather pants perform with The Doors, light a dollar bill on fire and do things with a microphone I would not appreciate until I was deep into middle-age.
But that’s the point of “Rock of Ages,” a trifle of a story strewn together between the rock ‘n’ roll hits of the 1980s, about two decades past my era. The show depicts that moment in theatergoers’ lives when one song blaring late at night on the radio perfectly captured what was happening in their lives and expressed feelings they didn’t know they had.
Writer Chris D’Arienzo and arranger/orchestrator Ethan Popp capture that time with humor and a jaded eye, aged by experience. Director and choreographer Michele Colvin wrings every ounce of absurdity and insanity from the script while paying homage to the music of Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison and Whitesnake.
Our guide on this trek back to the Sunset Strip of 1987 is Lonnie, who narrates the story and conjures up plot twists. He is played by Dominick Varney, who has not been turned loose on a role like this since he played Frank ‘N’ Furter two years ago in Penobscot Theatre Company’s “The Rocky Horror Show.”
Varney’s Lonnie reels the audience into the Bourbon Room, where rock ‘n’ roll changes lives and romances spark and die, like a skilled barker at a carnival. Varney’s over-the-top performance and his infectious energy keep the show moving, and when he’s not onstage, it often drags, especially in the weak second act.
Ira Kramer and Christie Robinson portray star-crossed lovers Drew and Sherrie, who come to the Sunset Strip chasing their dreams. Both give strong performances in stereotypical roles. Their voices are especially well suited for the love songs.
Kramer, who starred in “Grease” two years ago at the University of Maine, can hold an audience in the palm on his hand but doesn’t do that for “Rock of Ages.” There was something unnaturally tentative about Kramer’s performance Friday night. Rather than holding Kramer back so that his Drew is a guy with less talent than direction, a better choice for the director would have been to let Kramer release his inner Danny Zuko and own the stage. Drew chooses lasting love over a rock star’s lascivious lifestyle anyway.
The role of Sherrie is underwritten and a bit too 1950s naive for the mid- to late-1980s age of AIDS. But Robinson gives the girl a survivor’s spine and a soul full of stamina. Her Sherrie isn’t overwhelmed by the sleaze of the Sunset Strip, she just grows tired of men not knowing her real name or caring where she’s from.
As Stacee Jaxx, Andrew Crowe is mesmerizing. His rock star is a train wreck waiting to happen, and the audience just can’t look away. Crowe grabs hold of theatergoers and doesn’t let go. He sizzles in the role, reminding the audience that talent alone does not make a star but the ability to outshine everyone else in the vicinity by sheer force of will often does. Plus, he has those Morrison moves down pat.
Supporting players who give standout performances include Ben Layman, Heather Astbury-Libby, Brianne Beck, Neil E. Graham, and Alekzander Sayers.
Band members Allison Bankston on keyboards, Gaylen Smith on bass, Tom Libby on drums, and Joshua Kovach and Jeremy Shirland on guitar rock out but never overpower the performers. They also play loud enough for rock ‘n’ roll but not so loud that city councilors will get noise complaints.
Under the leadership of of producing artistic director Bari Newport, the Penobscot Theatre Company has put time and money into vastly expanding what appeared to be the technical limitations of the Opera House when the company purchased it in 1997. With all that neon on the set for “Rock of Ages,” it’s a wonder the Penobscot Theatre Company didn’t blow every electrical fuse downtown.
Scenic designer Tricia Hobbs, lighting designer E. Tonry Lathroum, costume designer Kevin Koski, sound designer Brandie Larkin and properties designer Meredith Perry created an every-bar, familiar to and comfortable for audience members. The Friday night show was a final dress rehearsal with a sold-out house. The technical aspects of the show went so smoothly that any glitches weren’t noticed by theatergoers.
“Rock of Ages” isn’t art, but it is a great party. In the wake of Sunday’s shooting in Orlando, standing up at the end of this show and singing “Don’t Stop Believing” at the top of your lungs will, for a few moments, drown out the voices of hate.
“Rock of Ages” runs through July 2 at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St., Bangor. Tickets can be purchased online at penobscottheatre.org, by phone at 942-3333 or at the box office at the Bangor Opera House.