Ridiculous plot is only an excuse to sing ’80s rock tunes

Drew (John Boyd), Lonny (Guillermo Jemmott) and Dennis Dupree (Brandon Anderson) hold forth in Shadowbox Live’s Rock of Ages (Photos by Tommy Feisel)

By Richard Ades

Jukebox musicals are a pretty silly invention, and Rock of Ages is sillier than most. Faced with the task of building a plot around popular rock tunes from the 1980s, book writer Chris D’Arienzo came up with a doozy:

A father-and-son team of German developers (Tom Cardinal and Billy DePetro) want to bulldoze Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and evict the rock fans who live and work there. Why? Presumably, to make money with a redevelopment scheme, but we all know the real reason is to give the cast an excuse to sing Starship’s We Built This City (on rock ’n’ roll) and a host of other ’80s classics.

Franz (Billy DePetro, left) watches as his father, Hertz (Tom Cardinal), persuades the mayor (Nikkii Davis) to back a plan to bulldoze Sunset Strip.

The plot is so ridiculous that the musical doesn’t even pretend to be anything but what it is: a musical. In the first few minutes, narrator and “sound god” Lonny (Guillermo Jemmott) admits he’s adding a romance to the proceedings simply because musicals have to have a romance.

We then meet would-be rock star Drew (John Boyd), who quickly falls in love with would-be movie star Sherrie (Amy Lay), just arrived from Kansas. Following the usual pattern, their relationship undergoes a series of hiccups and misunderstandings that keeps them apart until—well, until a host of other ’80s songs have been sung and danced to.

When I first saw Rock of Ages in 2010, I was able to embrace its silliness thanks to the touring show’s sweetly sincere portrayal of Drew and to outrageous costume designs that were like an oversexed version of what folks really wore during the Reagan decade. Shadowbox’s production, directed by Julie Klein, is only slightly more restrained on the style side, and Boyd is appealingly sincere as Drew. He also sings very well.

Drew (John Boyd) falls in love with Sherrie (Amy Lay) because, well, someone has to fall in love or it wouldn’t be a musical.

Most of the other cast members are equally in tune, musically and otherwise. Besides those already mentioned, they include Brandon Anderson as club owner Dennis Dupree, Jamie Barrow as sleazy rock star Stacee Jaxx, Ashley Pearce as protest leader Regina, Eryn Reynolds as talent agent Ja’Keith, Nikki Davis as the corrupt mayor and Noelle Anderson (alternating with Stacie Boord) as gentlemen’s club owner Justice.

Speaking of the gentlemen’s club, Lay’s Sherrie is amusingly inept when she takes a job there and tries her hand at pole dancing. Overall, though, I wish she came across as less of a shallow hick, which makes it even harder than it otherwise would be to care about whether she and Drew hook up.

To pick another nit, I wish DePetro’s Franz were a bit less, um, swishy. I realize the portrayal is meant to set up a joke about effeminate German mannerisms (presumably the kind Craig Ferguson used to spoof to excess on The Late Late Show), but DePetro overshoots the mark. (German mark? Get it? Never mind.)

Back to the good stuff: Accompanied by a boisterous five-piece band, the cast rocks out on vintage classics like Any Way You Want It, Don’t Stop Believin’, The Final Countdown, Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Just Like Paradise and many others. Even though the plot is reasonably entertaining, especially during Act 2, cover songs like these are the real reason for buying a ticket.

In a jukebox musical, that’s as it should be.

Rock of Ages continues through Aug. 27 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times: 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $20-$25. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

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Beatty’s return to the silver screen is as eccentric as his subject

By Richard Ades

Rules Don’t Apply is Warren Beatty’s first appearance in front of a camera since 2001’s Town & Country—and his first appearance behind a camera since 1998’s Bulworth. That probably explains why the flick is filled with so many familiar faces.

Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, left) listens as Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) testifies before Congress in Rules Don’t Apply.
Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, left) listens as Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) testifies before Congress in Rules Don’t Apply.

Paul Sorvino, Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, Oliver Platt, Ed Harris, Dabney Coleman and Annette Bening (aka Mrs. Beatty) are among the veteran A-listers who apparently were eager to take part in the actor/director’s return to the silver screen. That makes it ironic that two of the younger cast members emerge as the best reasons to see a tale based on a late chapter in the life of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.

Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich have appealing chemistry as two people in Hughes’s employ: Marla Mabrey, a would-be starlet, and Frank Forbes, a driver who’s assigned to chauffer her around. Because both Marla and Frank are devout Christians—and more particularly because Hughes forbids them to have anything but a professional relationship—that chemistry has plenty of time to percolate as the two are forced to sublimate their growing attraction for each other.

Beyond this budding romance, the film offers Beatty fans the pleasure of seeing the ex-matinee idol’s take on the secretive and exceedingly bizarre Hughes. But beyond that, it offers very little.

Set primarily in Hollywood in 1959, Rules Don’t Apply reveals Hughes’s odd penchant for signing contracts with young actresses who are given sumptuous housing but little opportunity to launch a film career. When Marla arrives along with her equally Christian mom (Bening), she’s said to be one of perhaps 26 such women who wait around for an opportunity that almost never comes.

It’s a fascinating situation, whether or not it’s entirely accurate. (The movie begins with a Hughes quotation advising us to “Never check an interesting fact.”) But the film built around that situation is frankly a mess. Early scenes end so abruptly and pointlessly that you have to wonder what the editors were thinking. Later, after Hughes emerges from the shadows, the film takes a long detour into his chaotic life that is as frustrating for us as it seems to be for the underlings who are forced to share it.

Lily Collins as aspiring movie star Marla Mabrey
Lily Collins as aspiring movie star Marla Mabrey

Throughout, consistent tone is conspicuously absent. Early developments and sumptuous visuals, including fleets of shiny vintage cars, help to establish a mood of affectionate nostalgia. But the script (co-written by Beatty) has no qualms about switching to broad comedy when chauffer Frank finally lets Marla take the wheel, only to watch her morph from a cautious and conservative young woman to a highway terror.

Collins’s character undergoes another transformation for the sake of a later plot point. Though a demure teetotaler, Marla turns into a booze-guzzling vamp the first time alcohol passes her lips. Despite being every parent’s worst nightmare, the scene just doesn’t ring true.

Like his many co-stars, Beatty’s fans will no doubt be glad to see him back after so many years of absence. But they might wish he’d taken a refresher course in filmmaking before attempting his return.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Rules Don’t Apply (PG-13) opens Wednesday (Nov. 23) at theaters nationwide.

Hollywood agent drops names, spills secrets in one-woman gabfest

Deb Colvin-Tener in Short North Stage’s production of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Deb Colvin-Tener in Short North Stage’s production of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

Do you like to dish? Do you love show business? Are you crazy about Bette Midler?

If you answered “yes” to all three questions, you’ll probably enjoy I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.

Midler starred in the one-woman play on Broadway, and Short North Stage’s production never lets you forget it. If Deb Colvin-Tener’s portrayal doesn’t remind you of the Divine Miss M, you must be suffering from either extreme youth or a serious case of amnesia.

Mengers (1932-2011) fled Nazi Germany as a girl and grew up to be a successful Hollywood agent. John Logan’s script reveals how she did it, then imparts juicy bits of gossip about her famed clients and other Tinseltown bigwigs she scuffled with while promoting those clients.

It leaves us with the feeling that Mengers could be an invaluable friend and a formidable adversary.

In one of her most fascinating stories, she talks about her campaign to persuade a reluctant William Friedkin to hire an obscure actor named Gene Hackman to star in The French Connection (1971). She pursued this partly by blocking the director’s driveway with her Bentley, but mostly by delivering a soundly reasoned explanation of just what Hackman would bring to the role.

When you hear who they were thinking of hiring in his place, you realize just how much we all owe her.

Mengers could be described as a force of nature—except that it would have to be an immobile force of nature. “Exercise has not played a big part in my life,” she announces, and she proves it by spending the entire play lounging on her couch. So averse is she to unnecessary exertion that she calls on an audience member for help when she needs something that’s on the other side of her plush, Michael S. Brewer-designed living room.

Directed by Jonathan Putnam, one of Central Ohio’s leading experts on comedy, Colvin-Tener makes the most of curmudgeonly lines like “I just don’t get the appeal of children.” It would have been nice to see a little more Colvin-Tener mixed in with the Midler-inspired gestures and intonations, but Midler fans won’t mind in the least.

Besides being funny, Colvin-Tener communicates the forced bravado that shows not everything is right with Mengers’s world.

We learn early on that she’s been fired by Barbra Streisand, one of her first and favorite clients, and is expecting the personal call that will make it official. Mengers’s career seems to be in trouble, but she’s determined to tough it out with her usual swagger, fueled by whatever courage she can gain from alcohol and marijuana.

With the Academy Awards presentation less than a week away, this is a particularly appropriate time to catch I’ll Eat You Last. After seeing it, you begin to understand the crucial role Mengers and her colleagues played in shaping the industry it celebrates.

Short North Stage will present I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers through March 1 in the Green Room of the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (no show Feb. 27) and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $25-$30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.