With an unbroken run of D’Oscars wins over the last seven years, Hild Bede Theatre’s annual college musical is a hotly anticipated and much hyped event in the DST calender. This year’s slightly risky choice is Rock of Ages, a jukebox musical featuring some of the most beloved rock hits of the eighties stringing together an (admittedly very thin) plotline about aspiring rockstar Drew and actress Sherrie. Rock of Ages (and I mean this in the least deprecating way possible) has an almost pantomine-esque quality about it: the familiarity of the musical numbers gives the sense of a concert rather than a more traditional sit-in-your-seats-and-listen format, and the constant breaking of the fourth wall draws the audience into the action from the outset. Peppered with larger-than-life personalities and thumping music, Hild Bede’s resulting performance is hugely enjoyable but uneven, fantastically energetic and raw but suffering in polish as a result.
The most pressing and consistent issues with Rock of Ages are sound related. I can overlook the odd microphone crackle but here the deafening thumps and cracks from the mic packs are so constant that these technical issues really affect the impact of the musical numbers. To their credit, the cast deal with their malfunctioning equipment admirably, and continue to perform their songs with the conviction and energy that rock music demands, but it is a crying shame that a lot of the musical talent on display was often entirely inaudible. I also feel that the sound levels were slightly askew – the ‘turn it up to eleven’ approach worked fantastically to really raise the roof during the full cast numbers, but the music underscoring the narrative sections was often too loud to hear any of the dialogue. Rock of Ages is by no means the most convoluted of musical plots, but I frequently found myself lost and missing the narrative threads tying the music together. The combination of unreliable equipment and a consistently top-volume instrumental necessarily forces the singers to compete – during some numbers there was a palpable sense that the actors were straining to make themselves heard, and as a consequence bad singing habits had started to creep in. I would encourage all the actors to keep fully supporting from the diaphragm and singing from the chest for the sake of saving their voices over the next four performances – whilst Rock of Ages is not a typical musical, it needs to be treated with the same kind of discipline as a more conventional production in order to ensure optimum vocal performances.
Musically, I found that Rock of Ages, perhaps contrary to my initial preconceptions, was far more effective in the smaller, more slow-paced songs than in the larger chorus numbers. ‘High Enough’ was a personal highlight, with some gorgeously taut harmonies and lovely control of the peaks and troughs in the music. Musical Director Emily Harlow should be particularly proud of her meticulous work in the duets in particular – being able to hear the two voices harmonising so flawlessly was almost haunting. Elsewhere, I felt that some of the bigger numbers lost impact due to some slightly off-key harmonies and occasional timing problems, which may again be a consequence of the volume issues. However, that said, Don’t Stop Believing closed the show in a spectacular fashion, with energy and musicality in perfect balance, so I have no doubt that as the cast settle into their run, the earlier numbers will also become more impactful. Conviction is not an issue; indeed, the cast have bucketloads of enthusiasm and are clearly enjoying themselves on stage, but some of the songs need a little more discipline underpinning this in order not to feel too uncontrolled. This approach would also benefit the choreography, which could occasionally fall victim to the same timing issues.
Rock of Ages is thematically fairly two-dimensional and offers its characters little scope for any depth, with the possible exception of Drew (Richie Johnsen) and Sherrie (Amy Barrett). I think both actors can relish their emotional moments more – a lot of the more sensitive exposition felt glossed over at break-neck speed. This was a real shame; as an audience, it’s very easy for the lovable aspiring rock-star Drew and impressionable Sherrie to gain our sympathy among a parade of dodgier personalities, and I would have really liked to see Johnsen and Barrett embrace the opportunity to really flesh out their characters and provide some more poignant moments in an otherwise very high-octane performance. Nevertheless, both are generally very strong. Barrett gives Sherrie a quirkiness-with-attitude and provides a powerhouse vocal performance, and Johnsen’s Drew is childlike and earnest, and very sweet. Rather unexpectedly, the poignancy came in the unlikely guise of German property developer Hertz (Alex Marshall) and son Franz (Matt Lloyd) – Lloyd in particular manages to be both hilarious and heartfelt, and his blossoming romance with Regina (the ever-vocally flawless Finola Southgate) was simply adorable. Tyler Rainford, as Lonny, also gave a standout performance (despite an increasing vocal similarity to Donald Trump as the production wore on) – Rainford has an incredible ability to naturally command a stage and from the outset fills Caedmon Hall with raw energy, charisma and personality.
Caedmon Hall, although fraught with issues for anything more intimate, really works for large-scale productions such as this one, and Elliot Mather (directing) and his team have utilised the space available to excellent effect (particular kudos to set builder Kieran Laurie). I loved having the stage half dedicated to a concert stadium-esque set-up and half to the set of the Bourbon Club, which allowed the musical numbers both to have a kind of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and never deviate too far from their spectacular crowd-pleasing origins. However, I think aesthetically the production could possibly have pushed the eighties vibe even further, especially because the decade is so iconic in terms of styling and I was expecting slightly more vibrant visuals. Rock of Ages is such a high energy, raucous musical anyway that it would have been lovely to see this vivacity mirrored slightly more in costumes and set, particularly as Caedmon stage is so big that it can often tend to feel very sparse very quickly.
Nevertheless, I left Rock of Ages having had a genuinely good time – the musical itself, not taking itself too seriously, is an awful lot of fun and it is lovely to see the cast so obviously having an absolute blast on stage. Whilst some of the flaws are pressing, I am confident that they can be easily remedied in order to make Rock of Ages reach its full potential. It’s only rock and roll – but I liked it, and I think you probably will too.