Rock Of Ages is in town this week, and the Congress Theatre is finally fully up and running.
The hoardings announce the first fully staged touring show in the freshly-opened venue, the giant trucks are parked around the back, and regulars return to their favourite seats.
Those much-discussed seats, by the way, are a little sleeker and maybe a little firmer than the creaky old ones. But the feel of the theatre is lovely - a bright auditorium with excellent views of the stage, and much improved access, air-conditioning and lots of technical upgrading, with a sound system that coped splendidly with the huge volumes of a full-on musical.
Rock Of Ages does what it says on those hoardings. Full of raw rock power, it packed Broadway for a decade and has a strong UK following too. This production, never knowingly underpowered, fills the Congress with pulsing, driving energy and on that score it cannot be faulted.
Subtle it isn’t. The performers vigorously, and rather sweatily, re-create both the string of classic rock numbers at the show’s core, and the culture which that music reflects. There is terrific musicianship and a string of peak moments of explosive exhilaration. Playing to the converted, they have the audience on their feet well before the end.
Artistically, there is a price to pay. This Rock City is built on a fairly flimsy story line – no issue there, for few of the jukebox musicals have any depth of plot. But the story, the setting, the characters are mired in a cloying sleaze that gives you a subconscious urge to wash your hands on the way out.
Small-town girl Sherrie arrives amid the bright lights to seek a career and fortune: a common plot strand in musicals. But this is no wide-eyed Kathy Seldon, falling delightfully for her handsome Don Lockwood. We are on LA’s Sunset Strip, or just a grimy block or two away, in the Bourbon Bar, where men are men and women are the décor. Macho attitudes, hard drinking, coarse jokes and casual sexual references. The girls are audaciously skimpily dressed, with more buttock than a beach at St Tropez. They dance like gymnasts with attitude and writhe like pole-dancers. If you were planning to take your Granny, you might prefer to exchange your tickets for next week’s Bank Robbery comedy.
In fairness, the portrayal of a particular slice of 1980s society is pretty accurate. But in an industry which now calls out the objectification of women, and is far ahead of the curve on so many social issues and movements, it just feels incongruous.
But if the subject-matter is questionable, there is no questioning the quality of the performers. The lead pair of Jodie Steele as Sherrie and Luke Walsh as Drew grow impressively into their characters, and they move and sing superbly. Sherrie’s confidante Justice is equally strongly portrayed by Zoe Birkett.
Unscrupulous developers Franz and Hertz Klinemann (Andrew Carthy and Vas Constanti) are the daftest German caricatures since The Producers, and Rhiannon Chesterman has a lovely cameo as Regina, leading the protesters into battle with floral skirt, tapestry bag and a cause scarcely worth fighting for.
Kevin Kennedy lightens the mood and draws laughs with his ageing rocker Dennis, while Lucas Rush as mein host and manipulator Lonnie has the audience whooping. Anthony Costa makes an impact as Stacee Jaxx, the famous name who might just save the venue.
Don’t go for the moral message. Just immerse yourself in the music. By Kevin Anderson.