ROCK OF AGES at the Kavinoky delivers non-stop high-energy fun

THE BASICS:  ROCK OF AGES, the jukebox rock musical, with book by Chris D’Arienzo and “music and lyrics by a bunch of really sweet 80’s bands,” directed and choreographed by Lynne Kurdziel Formato, presented by D’Youville College’s Kavinoky Theatre, opened Friday and runs through September 25, Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30, also Saturdays 3:30, and Sundays 2, at 320 Porter Ave, Buffalo, NY 14201.  716.829.7668  Masks are required in the theater.

Runtime: 2 and ½ hours with one 15-minute intermission (full cocktail menu available in the lounge).  

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Sherrie, (just a small-town girl) and wanna-be actress happens on Drew, (just a city boy born and raised in South Detroit) who is a wanna-be rocker.  They meet on L.A.’s Sunset Strip as janitor and waitress at a club called The Bourbon Room while pursuing their Hollywood dreams.  With a sublimely talented cast of 16 plus a kick-ass five-man rock band led by Allan Paglia ROCK OF AGES features excerpts of songs from the 1980s including “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Shadows of the Night,” and “I’ve Been Waiting for a Girl Like You” ending with an all-cast big production arrangement of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”  It’s a fun night out and don’t we need more of those these days?  I’ll answer that.  Yes, we do.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  Director and choreographer Lynne Kurdziel Formato, beloved for such fabulous Kavinoky shows as THE PRODUCERS and SPAMALOT has done it again.  She left absolutely no stone unturned in one of the fastest, most energetic, non-stop shows I’ve ever seen.  Speaking of non-stop, before anything else, I want to show some love for Production Stage Manager Derek Moran assisted by Camille Roosevelt.  I can’t count the number of costumes (Andrea Letcher), wigs (Mary Jakiel), and props (Gina Boccolucci) in this show, but it must be in the hundreds, as actors disappear through four different entrance/exit points and come back completely transformed.  

The band, led from the keyboard by Allan Paglia and fronted by lead guitarist Brad Peace, played all of the music (it’s not pre-recorded) and they delivered like a rock band, not a pit orchestra.  The six on-stage ensemble members (3 male, 3 female) were also an absolute delight.  They include, in alphabetical order, Maya Calvo, James Anthony Caposito, Heather Dorler, Thomas Evans, Stevie Jackson, and Daniel Pieffer.  Such energy!  They are joined by Andrea Letcher for a number of numbers.  Thank you, by the way, D’Youville Kavinoky’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell for providing real, 20-page printed playbills with full-color pictures of the entire cast.  Very classy.  

Dan Urtz, Chris Guilmet, Ricky Needham, Bethany Burrows | Photo Credit: Gene Witkowski

You may be wondering why I’m not mentioning the stars of the show yet.  They’re great, trust me, but everything about this production is at such a high level, I feel that I must mention it all including the detailed set by Dyan Burlingame chock-full of tchotchkes including that staple of 1980s pre-cellular life, the wall-mounted pay phone.  Every bar had one and when Gregory Gjurich in the role of Father goes to use it, the audience erupted in self-recognized laughter.  

So, key aspects of this musical are the frequent “meta-moments” especially when the character Lonny (played by Dan Urtz) breaks into his role as narrator and “breaks the fourth wall” to explain to the audience what’s happening or to explain to the characters on stage why it’s happening.  Urtz has been seen on-stage often at the Theatre of Youth where he has been developing his very pliable face, voice, and body language also honed to a fine point by his recent Artie Award-winning performance as both the human Jason and the hand puppet Tyrone in the recent HAND TO GOD at Road Less Traveled Productions.  If you loved him in that, you will love him in ROCK OF AGES.

Ricky Needham, as wanna-be rocker Drew, has developed a sweet, dopey on-stage persona over the years that he uses to the utmost in his current role, and man, can he sing!  There’s a show-stopping hold-the-note moment that had the audience spontaneously go wild.  His counterpart is the equally sweet Bethany Burrows, always great on stage, who gets to display her “naughty” side.  And who makes this good girl go bad?  It’s louche rock-star Stacee Jax, who exhibits every bad habit we associate with the 1980s, played by an incredibly jacked Anthony Alcocer, all tatted up, strutting around in leather chaps.  

While Stacee is Drew’s nemesis, the musical’s overall “bad guy” is Hertz (Gregory Gjurich) who pays off the mayor (Lorenzo Shawn Parnell) for the right to bulldoze the Sunset Strip.  With his rather reluctant son (“I’m not gay, I’m German”) Franz, they also set out to handle the local protesters led by Regina as played by comedienne Arin Lee Dandes.  The bar owner, Dennis, played as an aging hippie by Christopher Guilmet and strip club owner “Mother” played by Loraine O’Donnell round things out.  All in all, a fine cast.

Photo Credit: Gene Witkowski

I’ve mentioned several of the off-stage crew, but I also want to mention five people (usually unseen) whose jobs were recently praised by none other than “The Music Man” himself, Hugh Jackman, when he spoke eloquently on Broadway about those actors who are ready to jump into a variety of roles at a moment’s notice.  At the Kavinoky’s ROCK OF AGES the understudies are Stevie Jackson (for either Sherrie or Regina) and Thomas Evans (for Lonny).  The swings are Anna Fernandez (Ladies ensemble), Brett Jackson (for Drew, Stacee, or Franz), and Dave Spychalski (for the Mayor, Hertz, or Dennis).  Since Covid, understudies, stand-bys, and swings, long a Broadway tradition, are becoming more and more the norm in Buffalo.  

To conclude, let me implore you to bring any high school musical kids you know to this show.  They will love it.  And music teachers, see if you can bring groups, although I’d make sure everyone in the group is 17+ and that the parents condone the language and scenes with strongly implied sexual acts, smoking weed, and minor violence.  But again, it’s all in fun.  And don’t we need more of that these days?  I’ll answer that.  Yes, we do.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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