The Helen Hayes, nestled deep in the marquee maze of midtown Manhattan, is Broadway’s smallest theater. With just less than 600 seats, delicate 1920s molding and blood-red walls that seem to close in like velvet drapes, it looks like the perfect setting for a ragtime revue, or maybe a children’s puppet show. It certainly does not look like the kind of place where you might see actors in leather pants and mullet wigs gyrating to Def Leppard, or unleashing guttural wails at decibels that could shatter plate-glass windows. And yet Rock of Ages, the ebullient musical homage to ’80s hair-band jams that features all that and more, has made the quaint stage of the Helen Hayes feel like an arena show. On Dec. 18, when it arrives at the Venetian’s 1,166-capacity Sands Theatre, Rock of Ages will get the chance to really go full throttle—which, according to producers, was always the plan.
“When Rock of Ages was first dreamed up in Los Angeles in 2006, well before Broadway ever opened, the creators wanted the Vegas market,” says Scott Zeiger, co-CEO of Base Entertainment, one of the show’s producers. “And we knew it would someday come.”
Not that winning over the Strip will be easy. Even popular shows have trouble breaking even—take Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular (one of the previous resident shows at the Venetian), which survived more than 2,500 performances before shutting down in September, having never recouped its production costs over the course of six years. But then, that was opera. This is Whitesnake.
“We think it’s a natural fit of a guilty-pleasure show with a guilty-pleasure city,” says Jonathan Linden of S2BN, the show’s lead global producer. Adds Zeiger: “We want to become a fixture on the Strip. Cirque du Soleil, Celine Dion and Rock of Ages!!!” (Incidentally, Zeiger’s responses to my e-mailed questions are written entirely in all caps and punctuated with multiple exclamation points—as if his laptop were hooked up to an amplifier—which suggests that he is uniquely suited to produce this show.)
Of course, I can’t fairly review the Venetian production, which features an entirely new cast and staging/set changes to take full advantage of the venue, but having seen the New York show I can say that Rock of Ages seems tailor-made for a Las Vegas audience. From the opening voice-over, in which viewers are encouraged to “enjoy having [their] faces melted,” to the last note of the show’s closing number, a supercharged rendition of Journey’s overexposed but still irresistible “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Rock of Ages is aggressively, endearingly tongue in cheek and over the top, working its beloved soundtrack for all it’s worth.
Historically, that’s proven to be a smart move for Broadway-to-Vegas transplants—Mamma Mia!, which played at Mandalay Bay for six years, and Jersey Boys, which is still going strong at Paris Las Vegas, both benefited from the popularity of their respective song lists. On that front Rock of Ages, which appeals to the coveted 18-to-49 demographic of Gleeks and aging metalheads alike, is holding a royal flush. The show is unabashed about its efforts to create a hedonistic party vibe; actors dance in the aisles, and drinking is not only allowed but encouraged. On Broadway, to be honest, as fun as it was, Rock of Ages came off as a bit louche and touristy—the theater equivalent of the Hard Rock Café. But on the Strip it should fit right in.
And please, if you had the misfortune of seeing the Rock of Ages movie adaptation, which fizzled at the box office earlier this year, don’t let the trauma of watching Alec Baldwin, in a fright wig, belt out REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” keep you from the show at the Venetian. The ham-fisted big-screen version robbed its source material of most of its considerable charm.
A quick primer for those who care about the thin, fun, harmless plot that serves as banter between the show’s 30 Billboard chart-toppers: Drew, a wannabe rock god, works as a busboy on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, at the past-its-prime club the Bourbon Room (not so coincidentally, also the name of the Venetian’s new watering hole, which might best be described as a Disneyland version of a dive bar) circa 1987. Sherrie, a small-town girl (living in a lonely world, obviously), arrives from Oklahoma with Hollywood dreams, but takes a job as a waitress. While those two meet cute, the scraggly, hard-living club owner and manager, Dennis and Lonny, struggle to save the Bourbon Room from being razed by the mayor of Los Angeles and a German real estate developer, who want to cleanse the city of sin. And they try to convince a famous rock star, Stacee Jaxx, to return to the club where he made his bones for one last sold-out show. The stage show’s plot doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the songs and vice versa, but it really doesn’t matter. Rock of Ages has a healthy appreciation for its shameless absurdity and lowbrow appeal, which elevates it from a trumped-up karaoke showcase to a surprisingly deft and endearing comedy. In other words, come for the amps, stay for the camp.
Almost nothing is being cut from Rock of Ages for the Venetian run, which speaks to the creative team’s confidence in the appeal of their nostalgia-heavy production. “We’re not cutting a single number,” says Len Gill, a partner in twenty6two, the marketing firm helping Rock of Ages make its transition to Las Vegas. Zeiger puts it more bluntly, in his signature style, “YOU WON’T MISS A BEAT!!!!!” The biggest trim will actually be the length of intermission, which will shrink from 20 minutes to less than 10 to accommodate the tight, two-show-a-night schedule. Which, you have to admit, is pretty rock ’n’ roll.