TAC Theatre’s Rock of Ages has kicked off with a loud and excessively bright, sparkling, 80s rock ‘n’ roll bang and jazz bands. With songs ranging from Twisted Sister’s key anthems, ‘I Wanna Rock’ and ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, all the way to Poison’s hit ballad, ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ and the EU’s back up anthem, ‘The Final Countdown’.
Rock of Ages, named after a song by Def Leppard, was the brainchild of Chris D’Arienzo and ran on Broadway for 2,328 performances making it one of the top 30 longest running shows in Broadway history. The star-studded 2012 film adaptation included the likes of Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones and many more.
The TAC theatre company, led by Wesley Ellul and Marc Cabourdin, focuses on making the audience a living part of the show, which Chris Dingli as the lovable and slightly off-the-rocker ‘Lonny’ did beautifully every time he broke the fourth wall. Played by British comedian Russell Brand in the film, ‘Lonny’ serves as the comic engine of the majority of the plot as well as the ruckus narrator.
The plot works its way around the story of an aspiring rock star and busboy at The Bourbon Room, ‘Drew Bowley’ who is played by singer Kurt Calleja and his love interest. The singer and actor was catapulted into the Maltese public’s eye when he represented the country in the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘This is the Night’, more commonly known as “that song with that dance move you think you can do but can’t”.
Although sometimes straining to get that dirty rock voice going at the beginning of the show, he powered on and hit notes that anyone in the 80s rock and metal scene would have been proud of. I was sceptical at first due to my naturally cynical nature, but I was sold after his impression of Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach. His good guy charm both on and off the stage made him a perfect match to the lovable albeit naive and boyish main character.
His love interest, ‘Sherrie Christian’, was played by Taryn Mamo Cefai of ‘il-Klikka’ and ‘Strada Stretta’ fame. Not being a big fan of television, I knew she could sing but I was genuinely taken aback by her voice on the night. The character’s story is the age-old aspiring actress who runs away to Hollywood to find her big break but ends up working at the same bar as Bowley and eventually becomes a stripper.
There were a couple of points throughout the show when my overly-critical thinking kicked in and I noticed a couple flat notes here and there. That being said though, these songs are not easy to sing and her performance overall was a stellar one. If anything, the slight human errors made her whole persona a little more endearing.
The Bourbon Room is run by ‘Dennis Dupree’, played by Steffan Cheriet Busuttil, who is the Yin to Lonny’s Yang. Busuttil and Dingli’s characters work together to run the legendary bar and their relationship takes a turn when it turns out they’re actually in love. There is one scene with a smoke machine when they basically declare their love for each other that I’m quite sure will stick in the audience’s memory for years to come. If only because it was spectacularly awkward in a way which just made us love them more.
The love story takes a turn when temptation enters in the form of Dionysian rockstar ‘Stacee Jaxx’, played by real life Maltese rock star Errol Sammut from Airport Impressions. This musical is the local front man’s theatre debut and whether he is naturally gifted or whether because the character possibly appeals to some kind of 80s rock god fantasy, he pulled it off well.
Sherrie and Jaxx end up hooking up in a bathroom in a rather racy scene upon his arrival in The Bourbon Room following a tight rendition of Bon Jovi’s ‘Wanted Dead or Alive. This causes a catastrophic hiatus on the blossoming love between the two protagonists as Bowley finds out and is obviously afflicted with an intense case of theatrical heartache.
Meanwhile, the secondary plot – the doom of The Bourbon Room – is simultaneously happening thanks to the very overt German father and son, Hertz and Franz Klinnemann played by the comic strongmen Colin Fitz and James Ryder.
Fitz is a veteran in terms of theatre and comedy so it was no surprise that he was effective in inspiring audience reactions whether being the panto-esque villain or a blubbering drunk as the show progressed. The young newcomer to theatre, entrepreneur and Maltese stand-up comedy pioneer James Ryder did, however, steal the show as far as most are concerned.
It is not uncommon for a secondary character to be the occasional highlight of a show, but in this case the audience was completely drawn to Franz as he went from awkward daddy’s boy to someone who stood up for what he believed in. It says in his booklet bio that Ryder found it particularly challenging to integrate his comedic timing with musical theatre, but I can assure him that the effort paid off.
One thing that can definitely be said of the 80s’ re-creation is that the myth of beautiful people everywhere was truly addressed in the entire dance ensemble. The men and women dancers, both on stage and in the aisles, made the audience wish that they hadn’t skipped those last 15 years at the gym.
To be completely honest, I am not currently, have never been and will probably never truly be a fan of musicals. I don’t like the cheesy audience participation bits, I don’t like the pantomime booing and ‘aaawww’-ing and I hate the over the top declarations of love leading to an inevitable happy ending. That being said, however, I am a rock fan. I love loud music, over the top personas and everything the 80s rock and metal movement represented.
I walked in thinking I’d have to be nice because, this being an island the size of a thimble, there were a number of cast members who I knew before the show. However, I genuinely enjoyed it. Yes there were a few human errors here and there, and yes it was cheesier than that counter at the back of the supermarket that smells like cholesterol, but I sang along, I clapped, I banged my head and I walked out smiling broadly hoping I wouldn’t forget anyone.
A big well done has to go to TAC Theatre for another hit show as well as every single person involved and I hope that the standing ovations go on every Wednesday at around 11pm when the show is finished. The musical will be performed throughout the summer at City Theatre in Valletta and one can purchase the tickets online from www.rockofagesmalta.com.