Young rockers may never die, but they sure party heartier in a smaller theater.
Phoenix Entertainment's non-Equity tour of “Rock of Ages,” which, following on the heels of a strong first-national tour, played the Bank of America Theatre last November without enough oomph to twist even the most poisonous sister's head around, has journeyed back for a snaky summer sit-down at the 550-seat Broadway Playhouse. And if you want an object lesson in how the much a venue's size matters when it comes to spending your live-entertainment dollar, the school of rock is in, dear reader.
At the Broadway Playhouse, this campy celebration of the rockers of the 1980s — now a movie starring Tom Cruise, which will likely buoy interest in the live show — comes pretty close to replicating the experience on Broadway, which is, basically, the experience of laughing along with a cheesy book about a small-town girl and a wannabe rocker looking for love on the Sunset Strip and finding an excuse to trot out high-octane, amusingly out-of-context versions of “Don't Stop Believin',” “Can't Fight This Feeling” and other masterworks of an era when the target audience was groping along with REO Speedwagon, a sin to which your ever-furtive correspondent pleads guilty. Several times.
Because the Broadway Playhouse is small — smaller by far than the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where I first had the pleasure of “Here I Go Again,” redux, and smaller even than New York's Helen Hayes Theatre, where this show still plays — the cast can get out and about in the house, revving up the lighters, prancing around the aisles and squirming in a few inviting laps. And instead of the typically diminished production values of non-Equity tours, this show delivers a big spectacle in a theater where the actors are only a few feet from most of the audience members.
Better yet, this young cast can handle itself well, musically speaking, in a space of this size. Dominique Scott, the sweet young dude who plays the lead, Drew, has not acquired American Idol-size pipes since I last heard him sing, but he's grown considerably as an actor and a singer.
That's also true of Shannon Mullen, who plays love-interest Sherrie, and is way better this time around. The problem with non-Equity tours in general is that the actors typically lack experience — catch 'em after six more months out on the road and they sound a whole lot better.
That said, though, you really gotta give it up for this particular crew of actors and dancers who, space change or no space change, have significantly raised their collective game.
I still wish Justin Colombo, who plays the narrator Lonny, would dial back the shtick in favor of a warmer connection, but he's more in control of the crowd now, as is Matt Nolan, who plays the headbanger Stacee Jaxx and who both sends himself up with aplomb and offers up his almost-naked body just inches away from a most-engaged front row.
“It's all around me,” I heard a pleasured someone gurgle, which is a big compliment when it comes to “Rock of Ages.” And if that sounds like the Seventh Circle of Hell, why are you reading this far into my fourth review of this campy nonsense?
The Broadway Playhouse is, of course, where “Rock of Ages” should have played from the start, preferably with an Equity company, but that's all wine coolers under the bridge. As long as you have not seen this show four times in the call of duty, or have an aversion to campy lingerie, or think making a show very meta does not cover every dramaturgical sin in the book, you may now grab your wine coolers with impunity, leave your ear plugs at home (it's not that loud, actually) and take yourself and your loved ones back to an era when loving someone meant making them a mixtape they could keep, or throw away with you.
When: Through Aug. 5
Where: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.
Tickets: $70-$80 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com