Rock 'n' roll may be forever, but the same cannot, alas, be said of the touring cast of "Rock of Ages."
It has been barely a year since this irreverent jukebox tribute to Journey, Pat Benatar, Whitesnake and those other self-effacing bands of the 1980s kicked off its national tour in Chicago. But that was long enough for the producers, apparently eager to squeeze some profits before the big Hollywood adaptation comes out in 2012, to get rid of the Broadway-caliber cast members that populated that first national tour and replace them all with willing, non-Equity youngsters, none of whom have ever played Broadway. But they're now playing downtown Chicago.
None of this is ever announced to audiences, of course, nor is it reflected in the ticket prices, which top out at $90. Talk about bait-and-switch.
Shannon Mullen, who now plays the lead role of wannabe-actress Sherrie, is just two years past her Bachelor of Fine Arts. Dominique Scott, who plays the dreamy Drew, seems like he'd be lucky to get through the door of a bar, let alone be working in one. And in the most amusing change of all, the father-and-son team of German property developers (the bad guys in a dumb but harmless plot involving the fate of an iconic Sunset Strip music venue and the pairing of Drew and Sherrie) look like they're brothers.
Mullen, Scott and the rest all worked their promising tails off Tuesday night, when many at the Oriental Theatre were partying hearty to "Don't Stop Believin'," et al. Yes, I grant you, the leads are supposed to be young. Yes, you can see why going the cheaper route was tempting.
But as you can see at the brilliant "Doyle & Debbie" at the Royal George Theatre, for example, the most important rule of any kind of musical parody is that the cast must be able to sing the ditties as well as the original artists. When Constantine Maroulis ("American Idol") was headlining this tour, that was true of "Rock of Ages."
Not anymore. Mullen — sexy and beautiful as she may be — struggles mightily when it gets to these deceptively tricky power ballads and anthems, especially in the lower register. And Scott — pretty as his voice can be — just doesn't have the vocal heft or technique to pull off the central device of the show. That device, which has served this show well and is a large part of why I've been a fan, requires the actor to face front, open his mouth and sing his face off. Simple as that. Alas, all faces now remain attached.
There is one performance here that works very well, from Matt Ban, a decent actor and very funny as Dennis, the stoner club owner. The physical production remains the same (you don't have to pay salaries to neon signs). And Kelly Devine's happily trashy choreography is still reasonably well-executed. But you don't see much nuance in these characters anymore — Mullen lacks vulnerability, which is the key requirement of this role, and you couldn't give a darn about whether she stays or goes back to the cornfields. Most of the other performances are similarly immature.
"Rock of Ages" had always been smart enough to stay on just the right side of campy exploitation, protected by its wicked sense of humor, the force of its killer music, and, above all, by well-honed technique from its experienced performers. Not anymore.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $18-$90 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com