The Phoenix Ensemble have closed their 25th Anniversary season with a rock infused trip back to the 80’s with a sweaty, smokey, stripper-pole glimpse into the world of Rock of Ages. A wonderful tongue in cheek production that never takes itself too seriously, it allows the team at Phoenix to do what they do best, give the audience a wink that the characters know they’re in a show, and dive in together to explore the world.
Another production under the watchful eye of Director Morgan Orth, Rock of Ages is set with scaffolding, multiple levels, a roving bar, stripper poles, and a well used fireman’s pole. Orth knows how to manipulate the space in the Tin Shed easily to keep a production moving swiftly, while keeping the space as neutral and flexible as possible. While this works quite well in most aspects, I would have loved to see a spot (possibly the reconfigured band box) used to house some Bourbon Room memorabilia, or a part of the actual bar, to anchor the show to the rich nostalgia that it thrives on.
Nick Ng leads the small ensemble as Musical Director, and onstage orchestra well, doubling up to play lead keys. He definitely brought the high octane, louder than life feeling to the production, if a little too much in some areas, as the bands vamping meant that dialogue and some lyrics were lost due to some balance problems. Overall though, Ng kept a tight handle on things, and the band was wonderfully incorporated into the world of the Bourbon Room.
One of the key reasons to go see the show is Shelly Scott’s choreography. She shows a clear understanding of the genre, and perfectly handles the casts varied talent levels, letting the more experienced dancers shine, and pushing the less experienced in just the right places. The choreography during the final number is particularly impressive.
The key to making a show like this work is finding a strong and charismatic narrator, to pull the audience into the world of the show, and to hold the divide between real and make believe up for examination. In Scott Johnson’s Lonny, they got this in spades. Every time he popped up with another quip the audience was more and more on his side. A strong performer, easily handling the dual duty of being “in” the scene, and then turning to the audience with a wink and shattering the illusion, Johnson proves his comedy chops are more than up to the task.
As owner of the Bourbon Room Dennis Dupree, Frog Johnson gives a charmingly heartfelt performance. He makes the most of his character arc, spending much of the show boozing it up, and occasionally dolling out some sage advice, before finding true love, and meeting his fate … somewhat happily. Johnson, no stranger to the stage at Phoenix, gives us a Dupree who feels so much a part of the furniture that it would be strange imagining either the Tin Shed, or the Bourbon Room, without him.
The show centres around love struck couple Sherrie and Drew, Jayde Bielby and Adam Goodall respectively, and their ill fated journey towards happiness and acceptance of their own destinies. Bielby has a wonderfully rich country rock that soars during the ballads, and gives us a Sherrie who is never totally secure on her own two feet. By contrast Goodall has a stunning rock belt, and gives Drew a nicely grounded quality, while he works to get the girl, and find his star. It is a lovely combination.
In the role of Stacie Jaxx, Stevie Mac gives us a rocker surrounded by the haze of his own stardom and brilliance. Sauntering around the stage like a leopard, all animal instinct and lithe muscle, you know he’s dangerous, but you still kind of want to crawl into a cage with him, just to see what happens. A wonderfully caricatured metaphor for many of todays brightly shining stars, getting lost in their own neophyllic shine. Mac brings a wonderful presence to the stage, and some gorgeous vocals throughout, giving some fantastic shape to the show.
Two of the genuine highlights of the show are Beau Wharton’s chocolate loving Franz, and Jacqui Power’s corporate shill turned immolating protestor Regina. They have wonderful chemistry onstage, both have voices to die for, and every single scene that they are in is boosted delightfully. Both Power and Wharton give us another side to the story of love v dreams v expectation, both driving home the message that some things are just not worth the sacrifice, and sometimes the price is just too high.
As the devils on our shoulders, throwing down the “greed is good” gauntlet and exploring the path of faded dreams are Rebecca Kenny-Sumiga as strip club owner Justice and Joel Mikkelson as german development magnate Hertz. Both operate as a villain in their own way, although both have their redeeming qualities towards the end of the production and both Mikkelson and Kenny-Sumiga are outstanding in their roles. Mikkelson has such incredible explosive energy that he is simply a joy to watch onstage, and Kenny-Sumiga’s voice is outstanding. They deliver some of the best moments of the production, relishing in their respective wickedness.
Where would a Phoenix show be without a dedicated, hardworking, super talented ensemble? There is a lot to like about how the chorus for Rock of Ages works together, letting everyone and their individual talents shine through comfortably, giving the production a realness that works perfectly with the show, and lifts the quality of the production immeasurably. Of particular note was; Tony Paull as a constantly intoxicated rocker, janitor, and father; Molly Campbell who shone in every scene she was in; and Dean Bradley as Ja-Keith.
For any child of the 80’s or fan of rock, Rock of Ages is a wonderful nostalgia trip wrapped up into a gorgeous, concerningly sticky, love story. It is also underscores my firm belief that the team out in the Tin Shed continue to find ways to push the boundaries of their space in Beenleigh, to produce theatrical experiences that are always in your face, raw, and delightfully honest. Rock of Ages runs until October 27 2018, get your tickets at www.phoenixensemble.com.au.