Break out the hairspray and the leopard-print spandex, and get ready to have your face melted. Asheville Ballet, Asheville Performing Arts Academy and LW Fantastique Productions are teaming up to stage the Broadway hit Rock of Ages. The raucous 1980s jukebox musical is a love story full of elaborate, high-energy dance numbers. It’s set to some of the biggest hair-band hits of the MTV generation, including songs by Poison, Styx, Twisted Sister and others. The show opens Thursday, Feb. 4, at the Masonic Temple.
According to show co-director and choreographer Lyle Laney, it will be hard to tell where the stage ends and the audience begins. “Right from the start, we want the audience to know that they are part of the performance,” says Laney. “The audience is going to know these songs. We expect the audience will sing along with these songs.” The cast will be out in the aisles, working the crowd: “[We want] full-on audience participation; there’s no fourth wall. … The actors are right on top of the audience,” says Laney.
Laney and co-director Jacob Wallace cast 19 actors and dancers for the show. The lead roles of Drew Boley, Sherrie Christian and Stacee Jaxx will be played by Maximilion Koger, Taylor Aldrich and Luke Haynes, respectively. A live five-piece rock band includes Tim Doyle and Wayne Kirby on guitar, Megan Weil on bass, Matthew Richmond on drums and Lenora Thom playing keyboards for this over-the-top hair-metal extravaganza.
While community theater often relies on the cast and crew to volunteer their free time for the show, Laney has made it a point to pay actors and dancers for their time and expertise. “We started production Jan. 2 for a show that opens Feb. 4. That’s fast,” he says. “That’s a lot of expectation to put on the performers. … Producing theater is a lot like herding cats sometimes. It’s basically running a small business. You’ve got 50 people you’ve got to keep on the same page at the same time. … It’s a lot of work, and there’s a lot of thought that goes into it.”
Laney studied theater at UNC Asheville and has been a member of the local theater community for more than 20 years. As well as directing the show, he’ll play the role of Los Angeles nightclub owner Dennis Dupree. And although he has made his career as a ballet choreographer and instructor, Laney is excited to step away from traditional ballet and play a role that is full of nostalgia for him. “My formative years were in the mid-to-late ’80s, so I remember this music,” he says. “It takes me back.”
Rock of Ages is the story of a small-town girl who moves to Los Angeles with dreams of acting, only to become entangled in a love triangle with an aspiring musician and a sleazy rock star. Written as sheer guilty-pleasure entertainment, numerous Hollywood and rock ‘n’ roll tropes are employed to move the plot from one musical number to the next, with the songs themselves as the centerpiece of the show.
Rock of Ages met with huge success on Broadway and inspired a movie — starring Tom Cruise — of the same name. While thematically similar to the stage production, the screenplay made many changes, such as opting for a larger-budget soundtrack, fewer dance numbers and giving Cruise a monkey. According to Laney, the song changes altered the movie the most. While the play uses themes from its songs as narrative devices to push the story along, the movie opts for even bigger arena rock anthems, which have little to do with the story.
In the stage production, “it’s very clever the way that it’s done,” says Laney. “The characters have a reason to sing those songs. All of the music is integrated into the show.”
He continues, “You can make an argument that there are a few extraneous songs here and there, a couple of power ballads, but really most of the songs are cleverly woven through the tapestry of the play.”
And, even if members of the audience are not big fans of big-hair bands, Laney is certain that they will get swept up in the chaotic excitement of the musical. “It’s going to be a fun, fun show. I always keep that at the front of my mind when choreographing or directing: How do we maximize the audience’s fun for the show? You may not be a Journey fan, but when ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ comes on, everyone is going to sing,” says Laney. “The songs are 20 years old, they’ve had enough radio airplay. … Even if you don’t know it, you at least will know the chorus to it.”
Laney looks forward to opening day. “The spectacle is what I’m drawn to,” he says. “I want the crowd up and singing and dancing. It’s cold in Asheville in February — why sit still when you can be up and dancing to Journey?”
WHAT: Rock of Ages
WHERE: Masonic Temple, rockofagesasheville.com
WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 4 to Saturday, Feb. 13. Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. $30 lower level/$20 upper level