Review – High School Musical “Rocking The Ages”

“Rocking The Ages” is an adaptation of the Broadway play “Rock of Ages”, brought into the realm of High School musical. Produced by the Montreal English School Board’s Macdonald High School, it was a remarkably well delivered show which ran from the 18th to the 20th of April, 2013.

It’s a delightful and slightly risque return to an era of music that was a herald of a world in the geopolitical closure of one era and the step forward into another; the 1980s. The “80s Music” is the post-punk/ pre-rap window of time where synthesizers and sampler systems were primitive and barely portable, yet beginning to make their influence felt in pop. It was also a period of the glam-rock/ hair-band style which left an indelible mark on the culture and the record collections of the era.

The story centers around a fictitious and supposedly legendary club on the L.A. “Sunset Strip”, called “The Bourbon Room”. The Bourbon is where all the big names were discovered, and stepped into the Big Time. The characters of the story are all joined together by a connection to this iconic club; a time and place in rock-and-roll where dreams come true in the most vicious of games.

The two main characters are the proverbial “small town girl” Sherrie Christian, who proffesses to have “just fallen off the turnip truck an hour ago”, and the slightly more worldly Drew who is the “lonely boy, born and raised in South Detroit”. In a chance meeting outside the Bourbon, Drew convinces Sherrie to come inside to apply for a job.

After some cajoling, the legendary owner of the Bourbon Room, Denis Dupree, agrees to hire Sherrie. However, he does so with the ominous warning that “Don’t thank me… I probably just ruined your life”. This sets in motion a remarkable series of events that show the price of people, love, success and happiness against the setting of a world of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Both Sherrie and Drew take the moral tumble in the name of expediency, while providing the catalyst for washed-up and brutally cynical rock icon “Stacee Jaxx” to find the courage to turn his ship around towards a better port of call.

Full disclosure: I’m an 80′s kid. The music of the 80′s was the sound track to my teen years, and the lyrics are branded on my spirit and memories. I might forget my phone number, but I can sing “Rebel Yell”, “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, and “Sister Christian” without missing a word.

Full disclosure, 2nd: My son, Jean-Michel Vaillancourt, plays the role of Mayor Whitman. Some parental pride may be involved in reviews of his performance.

Ultimately, the show is well executed by the cast and crew. Director Melanie Everitt-Mak has done something that would cow lesser folks in the live theatre circuit, which is take a group of high school students from zero to hero in six months, turning out a three-night performance of a challenging and engaging Broadway hit. It is an adaptation, with a brighter story and different dialog, and it is very well delivered.

Staccee Jax, played on the two nights I saw the show by Manuel Quesnel, steals every scene he is in, looking every inch the vaguely deranged, boozing narcissist rock nightmare that his character is portrayed to be. However, in the “interview scene” where he goes “off the record” and unloads the brutal cost of his success, he shows the depth he can go. It’s one thing to artfully slump off a chair with a bottle in hand; it’s another thing to have the audience mesmerized, straining to hear every whispered word when he concludes with “… because up here, at this altitude, the first thing to die, is love …”.

The “serpents” of the story are manager “Paul Gill” and Venus Club madam “Justice Charlier”, played by Robert Vanderwee and Asia Lizardo, respectively. Their characters make clear arguments that are entirely too convincing about expedience and the ease at which one might choose “success” over love, mistaking the first for the source of happiness over the second. They are believable and capable in their roles, and their lines are delivered with enough practice to let the real purpose of their characters to be plainly seen. Ms.Lizardo is an excellent singer, and her numbers are a pleasure to listen to.

Drew is played by the talented Logan Neeson, who looks like he stepped out of a Duran Duran video with the high-mousse hair and guy-liner. He delivers a character that is street-savvy, and yet vulnerable to fall prey to his own fears and insecurities, when Paul Gill gives him the wrong nudge. Mr.Neeson has a capable voice, but a couple of times he was not quite on the beat. I also found he almost jarringly avoided eye contact with both whomever his character was talking to as well as the audience, instead favoring some position up on the auditorium wall behind the crowd. It’s a minor thing, but it was noticeable compared to the other players. However, his overall flair and stage presence make his character memorable and, most importantly, cheerable as he saves himself and, by extension, his true love Sherrie.

Marissa Hobe plays a very convincing Sherrie Christian during that characters complete slide from farm-girl innocence to an increasingly bitter club stripper who has lost her dreams and her way. Ms.Hobe has a clear voice, puts an excellent presence about her on the stage, and engages both the cast as well as the audience. She’s valedictorian material, and it shows.

The besieged Mayor of Los Angles, and the guardian of the fate of the Sunset Strip, is “Mayor Whitman”, played by Jean-Michel Vaillancourt. Mr.Vaillancourt is clearly having fun with his role, and delivered his lines easily with clear engagement of the other characters in the scene. The character itself is the classic “forgot where he’s from” politician, selling himself and his constituency in a Faustian deal to keep his place in the political firmament. He’s clipped, pressured, compromised, and it shows from Mr.Vaillancourt’s delivery of the character.

The Mayor’s wife, Patricia Whitman was played by Shenita Chase. Ms.Chase dominates every scene she is in that does not involve Stacce Jaxx, and delivers a character that is an absolutely memorable blend of Tipper Gore, Religious Zelaot and Reformed Smoker. Ms.Chase projects well, with both her voice and her presence, and again, this lady bears watching as valedictorian material. My only complaint, and it is very much a minor one, was the closing scene felt over done, as though she was not quite sure how to dial her stage presence down as her character was removed from relevance.

Rolling Stone Magazine reporter “Constance Sack” is played by Melody M. Freeman, and she does a good job at playing the slightly jaded veteran of the 80s rock scene, used to digging through musical dirty laundry in search of a story. Her voice is a bit sharp, but she sings her numbers from the heart, and delivers her lines with a very convincing intensity. She conveyed an almost burnt need to deliver the wake-up call that Stacee Jaxx desperately needs, and given the difference if physical size between Ms.Freeman and Mr.Quesnel, I found she held her own admirably in every scene.

The hard-luck owner of the Bourbon Room is Denis Dupree, played by Marc-Olivier Fontaine. His wise-cracking and somewhat high-strung assistant is Loni, played by Leanne Graham. These two completely steal the show with their unexpected and powerful duet of “I Can’t Fight This Feeling”. Mr.Fontaine is a powerful singer with a remarkable voice; he blows the doors off the number and personally left me wishing he had been given more to sing. Ms.Graham delivers a quirky, fun and immediately recognizable character that made me feel like cheering for, in spite of being a secondary role.

The selection of music is brilliant and memorable 80′s anthems. Most of the pieces are done as cleverly rendered duets, with a few “character development” points being done with four or five characters. Mr.Neeson’s rendition of “I Wanna Rock” was a great treat, and the duet of “Any Way You Want It” between Ms.Hobes and Ms.Lizardo was another high point of the show’s musical slate. The much hinted at full-cast finale of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is a crowd pleaser; doubly so if you heard it originally on AM radio.

In fact, my only complaint about the show has nothing to do with the young adults that deliver the show — I’m not calling this cast “kids”, they’ve earned their title with this one. The “old adults” in support of the show fell down. The sound and lighting were a rolling set of failures in both shows I saw. Wireless microphones EQ’d out, feedback on microphones that should have been turned off, actors having to visibly queue the lighting to fade out at a scene end, and so forth. The cast and director clearly have been working their tails off for the past six months to bring this to the barn in grand style, and it felt like the sound and light director phoned it in with disappointing results.

I understand that everyone is a volunteer here; I’ve done amateur theatre, television and radio. I know all about the “opening night blues” and the pain of trying to fit a near-zero budget project against a Broadway monster. I have built and rigged mics, lights and cameras using stuff from a hardware store for some shows. So when I say that the “old adults” let the young adults down, I feel qualified and justified in doing so. Volunteering for technical is no excuse for not understanding that you have got the fate of the show in your hands.

The only other complaint I have was the inexplicable lack of a video recorder crew. With two nights of cast continuity, and a week of dress rehearsals before, I vaguely expected to have DVD copy of the production as an option for proud parents and family to pick up or pre-pay for at the door. Nothing that I could see offered this; it would have been an easy fund raiser. Instead, there was a bake sale during intermission. I am guessing the issue was copyright concerns, but I am sure someone’s parent is a lawyer that could have looked up the options on a lunch hour.

All in all, it was a very good production put forward by a talented and focused team that delivered a fun and sexy rock show. The costumes were fun, the props had a kitschy-improv feel and house band delivered a great and consistent sound. It is a classic story that brings together an unlikely cast to play unlikely characters in a wonderful reliving of a time and place that now lives only in memory, putting lie to the lines:

“Rock and roll is dead. No one will remember these songs in five years.”  – Paul Gill

We still do remember them; and like Drew our hero, we sing them in the shower. As he says “Soap doesn’t judge”. Thank you, cast and crew of Macdonald High School, for a chance to dance down memory lane.