Lawrence Toppman

‘Rock of Ages:’ Can’t fight this feeling

Sherrie (Savannah-Lee Mumford) decides she’ll have to “Harden My Heart” to live in Los Angeles.
Sherrie (Savannah-Lee Mumford) decides she’ll have to “Harden My Heart” to live in Los Angeles. George Hendricks Photography

I doubt the word “poignant” has appeared in a review of the raucous musical “Rock of Ages,” but it briefly felt that way Wednesday night at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.

News circulated earlier in the week that ATC will be put out of its Stonewall Street home at the end of the current season, so apartments can be built. Here we were, watching a musical about a club on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles that’s about to be evicted for urban renewal.

But once Chris Michael Taylor and Thomas Faucette opened their twin-guitar attack on the first notes of this jukebox musical, the house began to rock. Two dozen songs (or snippets of songs) later, when the Bourbon Room had been saved, audience members clapped and swayed to Journey’s anthem “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Playwright Chris D’Arienzo had a brilliantly simple idea: He linked an intentionally superficial, often goofy plot to songs from the 1980s.

Sherrie (Savannah-Lee Mumford) comes to L.A. to break into the movie industry and meets Drew (Matt Carlson), who wants to become a rocker but currently cleans the Bourbon Room. That job may not last, because comic-opera villains Hertz and Franz (Billy Ensley and Stephen Seay) convince the mayor to let them bulldoze the strip and put in a mall.

Sherrie gets her heart broken by cruel Stacee Jaxx (Aaron Coulson) and ends up in a strip club run by “Mother” (Carlita Victoria). Drew morphs unwillingly into a boy-band boob. The happy ending unites couples and brings joy to all, including Bourbon Room owner Dennis (Jeremy DeCarlos) and his longtime partner in dissipation, narrator Lonny (Grant Watkins).

Director Chip Decker makes his smallish stage seem larger through constant motion and mayhem. Only the blazing five-piece band led by music director Mike Wilkins stays put; everyone else comes on and off in a flurry of costumes and wigs, some alluring and some unfortunate. (Note to Drew’s stylist: Al Yankovic does not look like a hard rocker.) Emily Ramirez even gets off lovely balletic moves in one number for no particular reason.

Actually, “for no particular reason” applies to a lot of the craziness in this show, which regularly has actors addressing us directly before popping back into character. Once, Lonny explains to Drew that he is an actor playing a musician, not an actual musician. In this world, coherence is no virtue.

But loud, powerful voices are. Coulson, a newcomer to the area, provides the most authentic old-school-metal tone. Mumford can belt – in both senses of the word, as she’s also the show’s fight coordinator – and leap back and forth between toughness and sweetness. Carlson sings well, though the high notes overtax him, and makes naivete appealing.

Sadly, hardly anyone sang along Wednesday on the chorus of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” As a public service, here are the words: “We’re not gonna take it. No, we ain’t gonna take it. We’re not gonna take it any more.” As Lauren Bacall said in a different context, “It’s even better when you help.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Rock of Ages’

WHEN: Through Aug. 15 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, 650 E. Stonewall St.

RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes.

TICKETS: $31-35.

DETAILS: 704-342-2251, atcharlotte.org.

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