As the newest resident of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino has garnered considerable attention for booking a vast array of headlining performers in both music and comedy since its opening in June.
The arrival of the touring musical “Rock of Ages” (for a week-long residency at the Hard Rock running through Nov. 4) may not be as celebrated as the appearances of Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer and Mariah Carey, but after taking in the show’s enthusiastically received performance on Oct. 30, I think it should be.
In the age of the jukebox musical, “Rock of Ages” has famously been called a mixtape musical, and that moniker couldn’t be more accurate. Eighties rock — songs by artists ranging from Bon Jovi and Poison to Journey and REO Speedwagon — is the centerpiece of the show, and its biggest star. Hair, costumes and set pieces, elements often seen as opportunities to establish authenticity in productions that take themselves far more seriously, come across more like backdrops to a music video here, complete with a five-piece band at center stage, and no one seems to mind.
There is a story to tell, however — two, actually, and they run alongside of each other, occasionally intersecting. One centers around L.A.’s seedy Sunset Strip and one if its most prominent commercial residents, the Bourbon Room, where most of the production takes place. Both the beloved rock hangout and the strip itself are under threat of being acquired and torn down by money hungry real estate developers, a father/son team from Germany. In the Bourbon Room’s place, they want to build a far less soulful but presumably more lucrative establishment — a Foot Locker.
The father, Hertz (played by Andrew Tebo), and the effeminate son, Fran (played by Chris Renalds), enjoy the greatest chemistry in the show. They earned continued laughs by playing their parts big, complete with comically exaggerated German accents reminiscent of the one’s you’d find on television’s “Hogan’s Heroes.” Renalds, charged with the flamboyant and more comedic role of the two, is a standout.
Running alongside the threat of eviction is the requisite love story, whose arrival the show’s narrator acknowledges is formulaic and predictable. In the capable hands and singing voices of Anthony Nuccio and Katie LaMark, it is also thoroughly enjoyable. Coming off a stint as Maureen in the 20th anniversary production of “Rent,” LaMark is endearing as a naive girl landing in the big city in hopes of becoming an actress (they warned you!), and she sings a diverse amount of numbers wonderfully. The brawny Nuccio has a voice as muscular as his physique, and while he’s a more than adequate actor, his ability to reach and sustain powerful high notes in a hard rock vein places him credibly alongside the original ’80s rockers that the show pays unapologetic homage to. It allows him to completely inhabit the role.
Unlike the heavy lifting the love story requires Nuccio and LaMark to navigate, there are no multiple dimensions to Stacee Jaxx, played gleefully over-the-top by Sam Harvey. Jaxx is the megalomaniacal (and cartoonish) lead singer of Arsenal, the band that brought him fame but whose members hate his guts. Harvey plays him with an empty head, open shirt, Vince Neil hair and a Billy Idol scowl, and appears to be having as much fun onstage as his character brings the audience.
Dennis is the beleaguered owner of the Bourbon Room, played by a perfectly cast Ryan M. Hunt, who garners laughs while moving the story along, primarily through dialogue with his employee and friend, Lonny. Lonny also happens to be the show’s narrator — the most important element of the show outside of the music — and is played wonderfully by John-Michael Breen.
Breen inhabits the snarky role so casually, and with so much seemingly natural wit, that if the musical hadn’t existed for a full decade (a milestone that this tour celebrates) and become a major motion picture along the way, you could probably be persuaded that he wrote it as a vehicle for himself.
Speaking directly to the audience throughout, fourth wall be damned, his character is the conscience of the show, while the bombastic music of a generation provides the soul.
And its ensemble cast provides the heart, of which this production has plenty.
“Rock of Ages” will be presented at the Sound Waves stage at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1-4 at 8 p.m., as well as Nov. 3-4 at 3 p.m. Visit hardrockhotelatlanticcity.com/entertainment.