'Rock of Ages'

Journey through '80s rock and glam metal anthems a head-banging good time

NH Weekend Editor
January 10. 2018 1:03PM
“Rock of Ages” is a soundtrack of 1980s glam metal and rock. 
If you go...
WHAT: 'Rock of Ages'

WHEN: Opens Friday at 7:30 p.m., through Feb. 3, with matinee and evening shows

WHERE: Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St., Manchester

TICKETS: $25 for ages 6 to 12 and $39-$46 for ages 13 and up

INFO: palacetheatre.org; 668-5588

It was a decade of excess — sex, drugs and rock & roll, with big attitudes and even bigger hair.

Arena anthems and power ballads stormed the stage in the 1980s and fueled an MTV generation that put as much emphasis on lyrics and instrumentation as the often campy theatrics of the accompanying music videos.

Pat Benatar turned a song about complicated relationships into a defiant dance-off against a seedy, pimp of a nightclub owner in “Love is a Battlefield.” Poison aimed for “Nothin’ But a Good Time” with a full head-banging disclosure of ulterior motives. In “Here I Go Again,” Whitesnake’s front man David Coverdale sang about a heart in need of rescue, gazing longingly into the camera while then-girlfriend Tawny Kitaen did limber acrobatics atop car hoods.

But it was another rock band that turned a midnight train ride by a small-town girl and city boy into the ultimate ‘80s anthem. Journey had it right 37 years ago: “Don’t Stop Believin.” The resilient band, fronted by charismatic vocalists from Steve Perry in early days to Arnel Pineda in the last decade, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.

That’s the message behind the feel-good musical “Rock of Ages,” opening Friday and running through Feb. 3 at the Palace Theatre in downtown Manchester. Set on Los Angeles’ infamously seedy Sunset Strip, it’s a giant fist pump to gritty ‘80s rock and flamboyant glam metal, complete with wailing guitar riffs, questionable fashion choices and a whole lot of heart.

For the three leads — Laurie Elizabeth Gardner (as small-town girl Sherrie), Anthony Nuccio (as Drew, the city boy born and raised in South Detroit) and Sam Harvey (as the outrageous and jaded rocker Stacee Jaxx) — the Palace production run marks a reunion, since each played the same role here two years ago.

“People up here love rock music, and especially ’80s rock music,” says Nuccio, a Philadelphia native who now lives in New York City. “It’s a trip down memory lane for them. When they come ... it’s like karaoke — there’s glow sticks, people sing along. You look out during the ballads and just see a bunch of people waving glow sticks, and it really gets you.”

Return trip

Cast members individually have performed in various “Rock of Ages” shows on tour, in regional theater or on cruise ships. Still, the Manchester production is a favorite for Gardner, who calls Kansas City home.

“I love (Palace Artistic Director) Carl Rajotte’s direction ... because he sees Sherrie as a little quirky, and I as a human am a little quirky,” she says with a chuckle. “In the show, she’s the newcomer, she’s the newbie, so she has to fit into this crazy world of all these extreme characters. Carl was really great about finding the humor of Sherrie, along with her being naive. So that’s been really fun to do.”

For his part, Harvey finds it fun to share very little in common with the no-filter rock star he portrays in “Rock of Ages.”

“What’s most fun about Stacey is he’s about as far away from what I normally am in life. That’s what’s such fun about theater. I can come into work and just be ... a goofball. He’s way over the top. He’s kind of rude but he’s sexy, and just so far away from what I feel like I am in my normal life.

“It’s so much fun for me to be this guy who says whatever’s on his mind, and to think it’s OK ... and maybe it’s not that OK to say! But when you believe it’s OK, the other people believe it too. It’s like (outspoken Poison front man) Bret Michaels in a way.”

Still, “Rock of Ages” does have its challenges, one being the costuming, or rather the lack thereof.

“Our costumes are small, so that’s a little scary sometimes,” says Gardner, whose character winds up working as an exotic dancer. “But it’s also really fun ... Jessica Moryl (who has done costume design for many professional Palace productions, including “The Full Monty,” “42nd Street” and most recently “A Christmas Carol”) is our costumer, and she does a great job. The ’80s is really a time for accessories and neon. It was an era where you could never have too much of anything. There’s just layers upon layers, plus you have to love crimping of the hair.”

For Nuccio, who like Gardner was born in the ’80s, this show is an introduction to the some of the wackier aspects of pop culture of that time.

“Honestly, it’s the wig,” he said when he’s asked about what might be the most uncomfortable piece of costuming. “I used to have long hair, but putting on the wig is painful because there are a lot of pins just to keep it in place, which I am not used to.

“I’m also a crybaby when it comes to pain,” he says with a laugh. “After a while it starts to hurt the scalp. But at the same time, (those pins mean) security and freedom for all the head-banging and twirling hair down like Rapunzel. It really, really helps to get into the ’80s mindset, and I live for it to be honest.”

The teased, long locks don’t bother Harvey, whose plays the over-the-top glam rocker Stacey Jaxx.

“It’s a beautiful big-hair-band blond wig. It’s my mane,” jokes Harvey, a Nebraska native who now lives in New York City. “Costuming is so fun for Stacey. Not a lot of clothing, which like Laura is saying, there’s a lot of pressure to that. But it’s kind of fun to have to go to the gym and all that stuff. I did ‘Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ here at the Palace so (while) Stacey is clothed very little, I’ve been clothed less at the Palace Theatre. In ‘Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,’ I just wore a jock strap.”

Thankfully, both Nuccio and Harvey have their wives on stage to boost their confidence. Both Val Nuccio and Katie Harvey also are in “Rock of Ages.”

“They were here two years ago, too. There are a lot of couples. It’s like a big family reunion,” Nuccio says.

He also liked the crowd reaction at the Palace for “Rock of Ages.”

“Cruise ship audiences are different. You know, they are just kind of waiting for the next meal, so they might not be into it. They might leave early, they might get offended because they don’t necessarily know what they’re going to see.”

On the flip side, “booze cruises” can bring an unwanted level of enthusiasm.

“With the alcohol, sometimes ... they are almost heckling, taking away from the performance,” he says.

But at the Palace, “people know what they are getting into. They know that it’s ‘nothing but a good time,’ as in the opening song,” Nuccio says.

His favorite ’80s anthem to perform is Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again,” which puts the characters on their individual paths and sets the mood for the second act.

Plus, it features Rajotte’s signature fast-footed choreography.

For Harvey, a highlight is Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive,” a song that equates the life of a tour-tired but confident rocker to a weathered cowboy on a steel horse with a loaded six-string on his back: “I’ve seen a million faces and I’ve rocked them all.”

“‘Dead or Alive’ really introduces the character of Stacey. It’s super fun. Everyone’s on stage. It’s just a big music video.”

It’s worth the extremely tight pants he has to wrestle into before a show.

“It’s a process to get into them. I’m jumping around the dressing room,” Harvey says with a laugh.

But the downsides are worth the adrenaline boost.

“The full package, once we’re in costumes and the band starts playing ... It’s been almost two years of doing ‘Rock of Ages’ (in various productions) but I will never get sick of it,” Harvey says. “Literally, it’s like when that first guitar comes on and the show starts, even if you are having the worst day of your life, you cannot continue having the worst day of your life. Does that make sense? It brings tons of joy.”

For the cast, its a glimpse into the life of a musician.

“It’s a concert. We’re really giving you a concert up there,” Gardner says.

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