The words “dinner theater” usually conjure up images of linen-covered tables, black-tie-wearing waiters, and productions of classic fare like Hello, Dolly! or Showboat.
But a new immersive production of Rock of Ages in Hollywood, which takes place in a custom-built version of the show’s Bourbon Room, makes over the dinner theater experience with hairspray, guyliner, acid-washed denim, and Jell-o shots for a glitter-dusted evening that’s altogether rock ’n’ roll and a rollicking good time. One could say entering the space and the world of the show is just like living in paradise.
Audiences enter on Hollywood Boulevard, where a bouncer checks IDs, before being ushered back into the 1980s via a bourbon-soaked nightclub lined with platinum records. Preshow drinks and snacks can be enjoyed in the luxurious bar and club space outside the theater, complete with a tattoo chair for theatergoers to get properly (temporarily) inked with images of the Hollywood sign and other hair metal iconography.
Once audience members are tatted and liquored up, they can enter the theater itself, a space converted into a full-scale model of the Bourbon Room, a dizzying vision of ’80s excess with a stripper pole there, blinking neon lights here, and the essential haze of a fog machine covering the proceedings in a cloud of hot-pink nostalgia. Producers have committed completely to making this an immersive experience, from the plush leather seating to the fake lighters provided so audiences can sway in time, flames aglow, whenever an emotional ballad strikes up.
The production marks a full-circle moment for the 2009 Broadway smash, which began its jukebox musical life at the infamous King King rock club on Hollywood Boulevard in 2005. Here, it’s back in its element, only a stone’s throw from the plot’s legendary Sunset Strip. Considering it was first conceived in a similar space, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the show has never been better.
The team has assembled a stellar cast, not a weak link among them (Frankie Grande’s Franz is cloying and over the top in the intimate space, but even he grows on you as the night goes on). The vocals are top-notch, nailing the licks and earworm choruses of the soundtrack stacked with hits from top to bottom. The show’s welcome message promises a performance of face-melting proportions, and when it comes to this ensemble’s vocal prowess and physical agility, they’re not far off.
Nick Cordero returns to the role of club owner Dennis after playing him on Broadway, bringing the role a deep-throated growl and innate sexiness beneath his schlubby hippie vibe. He’s effortlessly funny and charming, anchoring the proceedings with his wry, winking humor as a guy consistently in on the joke. Cordero is the ideal foil for Matt Wolpe’s manic Lonny, a propulsive, warm narrator who reminds us all that half the fun of the show is its sense of humor about itself, never more clear than in new dialogue skewering the 2012 film adaptation.
Sean Yves Lessard also shines as disintegrating rock star Stacee Jaxx, bringing the character a louche sex appeal that feels even more authentic in the confines of the nightclub setting. He’s game for just about anything for shock value, strutting his way through his glam metal tracks with all the confidence (and attendant bird brains) of a peacock. He, among a few others, leaves one wondering what the budget is for tearaway clothing on this production.
But it’s Ian Ward and Callandra Olivia who give Rock of Ages its pulsing, neon-lit heart. Ward lends Drew, the show’s aspiring rocker, a glimmering naivety — his winsome, natural earnestness matched by his powerful belt and soulful voice. He’s paired perfectly with Olivia’s Sherrie, the story’s other bright-eyed dreamer. Olivia takes Sherrie, a portrait of idealized ’80s femininity, and lends her an essential edge, cutting her sweetness with a fierce sense of self-possession. Her vocals are equally mesmerizing, leading the two to partner on duets that create a wall of sound designed to touch your heart and excite your soul.
The entire ensemble makes good on the promise of an immersive experience, strutting out into the audience, often executing complicated dance moves only inches away from audience members. Theater often has the added benefit of slight distance from an audience, occasionally making the task before a performer slightly more forgiving depending on sight lines and such. Here there is no remove, with the cast members regularly within easy reach, which only makes their flawless execution — from their fierce choreography to their commitment to larger-than-life characters — all the more impressive. There’s no room here to let up for even a moment, and the cast doubles down on the explosive, enthusiastic energy that propels this show to greatness by sheer force of will.
Rock of Ages has the potential to make dinner theater cool again, offering a fizzier, more interactive take on the format — and we won’t stop believing that’s possible. But the show has never asked for more than to please those of us lookin’ for nothin’ but a good time, and in this new home, it don’t get better than this. A