A century ago, Toronto’s Elgin Theatre was a thriving vaudeville house. Elaborately costumed chorus girls lined the boards, cheerily time-stepping their way through ornately painted sets to ravenous applause. Performers juggled, flaunted trained animals, did acrobatics: frivolity reigned.
So although Rock of Ages at More Entertainment Group begins with the futuristic instruction to download an app from an onstage QR code, its Ziegfeldian commitment to audience-pleasing spectacle feels right at home in the historic theatre. With a cast of local musical theatre stars in tow, writer-producer JP Gedeon has done his utmost to power through the show’s at times shoddy dramaturgy and bring commercial theatre guitar-soloing back to the Elgin.
Rock of Ages, a jukebox musical featuring ‘80s rock hits, has the vague contours of an LA romance. Amateur songwriter Drew (Trevor Coll) meets Kansas-hailing wannabe actress Sherrie (AJ Bridel) and gets her a waitressing gig at the Bourbon Room, the grungy rock bar where he works. The two then do the things people do in LA romances. Meanwhile, a subplot about the gentrification of the Sunset Strip rages on in the background.
The angle here is that broken dreams are better than broken hearts: though Drew and Sherrie may not make it in the big city, they have each other. But the show undercuts this theme by being relentlessly meta. Every few minutes, narrator Lonny (Dave Comeau) interrupts the story to banter with the audience about the Rock of Ages film adaptation, Toronto, and the fact that the show exists at all. So it’s nearly impossible to empathize with the lovers failing to make it as performers because we’re continually reminded that they are, in fact, successful actors with great voices.
But you don’t go to Rock of Ages to empathize. You go to rock. And Gedeon renders the numbers with bombast. Even the slightest indication of a song’s opening riff transforms the stage into a maximalist conflagration of flashing lights, aggressive video design, and rock concert lasers. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a film filling the screen with CGI to evoke emotion, and Gedeon pulls it off with the skill of a Cameron or a Luhrmann: the sheer amount of visual information on display overwhelms the senses, gets the dopamine pumping, and, yes, melts face.
Erroll Reinart and Narda McCarroll’s vibrant lighting design is the clearest representation of the production’s spectacle ethos. While in most shows, lighting’s primary purpose is to direct the audience’s eye, that’s only secondary here. Instead, the lighting supports Gedeon’s maximalism by creating exciting visual texture. It has an atmospheric, rather than narrative, function. If this wasn’t Rock of Ages, I might therefore criticize the team for not trusting the material, and instead trying to overwhelm it with design. But it’s Rock of Ages, and so this distrust is perfectly warranted. Throughout, Gedeon and company demonstrate impressive understanding of the sheer theatrical force needed to power a show like this.
The cast, too, understands the assignment. As the romantic leads, Coll and Bridel play it straight — which by the end of the thin plot satisfyingly circles around to being camp. Coll’s pyrotechnic tenor glides through even the most demanding of high notes, while Bridel’s careful attention to dynamics finds impressive emotional range in simple melodies.
The supporting cast has a similarly infectious amount of fun. Jeff Madden nimbly navigates a smattering of bit parts including a smoking dog and a record producer, while Tyler Pearse sneaks some glorious falsetto high notes into a comic role that seems right out of Legally Blonde: The Musical.
The ensemble is handily rounded out by such Toronto theatre stalwarts as Gabi Epstein, Tiffany Deriveau, and Paige Foskett. And there’s even a wonderful local dancer, Kae Kae Lee, making her musical theatre debut in the show. Together, they knock through Sean Cheesman’s scrappy choreography with ease.
But perhaps the strangest thing about this Rock of Ages is that although everything from the program to the pre-show announcement hammers home the fact that this is an ‘80s show, the production feels strikingly contemporary. Nick Blais’ flexible, multi-level set invokes the rock concert of the show’s meta setting rather than ‘80s LA, and the video screens across the stage ensure that the production’s aesthetic always has one foot in the digital realm. So it always feels like a show tributing the ‘80s — not a show actually set there.
This makes Rock of Ages the ultimate show for an era where the divide between watching something ironically and watching something earnestly is foggier than ever. The show expects you to give over to its ‘80s cheese while still remaining at an ironic contemporary distance.
But though that may sound difficult, this kinetic production makes it surprisingly easy. Especially when the cast is belting out high notes, the show is so damn fun that most audiences will be willing to go along with its ups and downs. If this is Gedeon’s bid to become Toronto’s next big theatrical impresario, it may well pay off.
Rock of Ages plays at the Elgin Theatre from February until May 20, 2023.