Review: In ‘Rock of Ages’ at Mercury Theater, knockout singers bring nothin’ but a good time

There are three golden rules for a great production of “Rock of Ages,” the comedic 2009 Broadway musical by Chris D’Arienzo that celebrates the power ballads, guitar-driven romps and heavy-metal masterworks of 1980s classic rock, god rest its soul.

Rule No. 1: Cast people who can sing their faces off. The show’s comic structure only works when the vocals blow the audience out of the water.

Rule No. 2: If you’re going to do this sexualized, Las Vegas-like retro romp, a show that now would have zero chance of making it to Broadway in this form, then you have to commit to its anarchic, politically incorrect spirit and damn the consequences. This is edgy satire, fully compatible with an audience that has come to party like it’s 1989 and it gets away with everything because D’Arienzo wrote it with such heart.

Rule No. 3: See rule number one.

I’ve reviewed “Rock of Ages” a half-dozen times before (New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Chicago again, Aurora) and the new made-in-Chicago production at the Mercury Theater impressed me the most — at least since the original Broadway production with Constantine Maroulis playing the rock star wannabe Drew in love with the conveniently named Sherrie, fresh off the bus from Kansas and altogether too interested in the badly behaved rocker, Stacee Jaxx.

In fact, director Tommy Novak’s Mercury production in some ways works better than the original, especially when it comes to the dumb subplot involving a German father and son who want to bulldoze Dennis DuPree’s historic Bourbon Room club. In every other production I’ve seen, including that has been a cringeworthy collection of Teutonic stereotypes that bring the show down. But Jeff Diebold and Aaron Davidson really make the comedy work, with some of that credit surely going to Novak who foregrounds the show’s warmth while letting it be the way it was written to be. I hope we get to see more of their directing work.

Most of the actors in this show are new to me and to the city’s theater scene; Donovan Hoffer, who kills in the tricky role of Jaxx, is an “America’s Got Talent” alum with an awesome set of pipes and a very shrewd tonal sense of what to do and what to avoid.

The two leads, Kayla Shipman as peppy Sherrie and David Moreland as droopy Drew, are knockout singers; Shipman really is a colossal new talent who will be going all kinds of places, likely not including small towns in Kansas. Add in a very fun narrator Lonny from Michael Metcalf, a droll Dennis from Steve Watts and you have, as the show likes to say, nothing but a good time.

Novak and the musical director Linda Madonia make use of the band being front and center on Bob Knuth’s set and they amp up the volume as much as the pace. I can’t say the prospect of another “Rock of Ages” had me salivating, but the party on Southport Avenue Friday night was definitely big fun, even spilling over into the “Oppenheimer” movie crowd coming out of the Music Box next door.

Worth remembering how much we all missed this kind of escapist romp during the pandemic; for the record, I’ve never rated a production of “Rock of Ages” this highly.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Rock of Ages” (3.5 stars)

When: Through Sept. 10

Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tickets: $39-$79 at