|The cast of "Rock of Ages" perform "Don't Stop Believing." Photo from the Facebook page of Atlantis Productions
MANILA, Philippines -- Tom Cruise may be reaping positive reviews from critics for his spot-on portrayal of an aging rocker in the movie "Rock of Ages," but if it's unbridled fun you're looking for, nothing beats the stage version currently running at the RCBC Plaza in Makati City.
By the end of this two-hour-plus jukebox musical, the packed audience on Saturday night were on their feet, clapping and singing along with the cast on the Journey anthem "Don't Stop Believing." It's undeniably, though absurdly, uplifting, a truly well-earned feel-good moment.
But that's getting ahead of the story.
Often, retro musicals like "Mamma Mia" and "Xanadu" turn out to be one-note camp extravaganzas trapped in their own silliness. In contrast, "Rock of Ages," despite its juvenile concept and cliched story line, is one of the most genuinely enjoyable musicals of recent memory mainly because of its sincere affection for the '80s era.
"Rock of Ages" promised "nothing but a good time" and the musical, mounted by theater company Atlantis Productions and directed by Chari Arespacochaga, delivered in huge amounts.
From Wolfgang's Basti Artadi's video message reminding audiences to turn off their cell phones to the entrance of The Dawn's Jett Pangan, shaking his denim-clad behind a la George Michael in "Faith," his hair done in a ridiculous spiked mullet, the audience was instantly primed for a fun evening.
And there was no letup. The musical zipped through an '80s catalogue of pop-rock hits energetically and loudly like an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo.
Stage versus movie
Both the stage musical and the movie follows the basic story of two young dreamers who fall in love against the backdrop of LA's Sunset Strip in 1987. Drew (Nyoy Volante) works as a helper at the Bourbon Room while waiting for his break, while Sherrie (Vina Morales) moves out of Kansas to follower her Hollywood dream.
But while the movie is more protective of Sherrie's innocence, the Broadway version offers a more racy character; Sherrie gamely agrees to have sex with rock star Stacee Jaxx (MiG Ayesa) at the men's bathroom but only because Drew said they were just friends.
The movie introduces the mayor's anti-rock wife, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Stacee's manager (Paul Giamatti) but drops three characters from the play -- the hippie activist Regina (Aiza Seguerra) and the father-and-son team of Hertz and Franz (Calvin Millado and Bibbo Reyes), who are bent on redeveloping the Strip.
Lonny (Pangan) not only works at the Bourbon Club with Dennis (Jamie Wilson) but also acts as the play's narrator.
But the more significant change is in the character of Jaxx, who drives the movie, but in the play is more of a featured role. And a comic one at that.
While the movie could have amped up the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll aspects of the setting, it is the play that thoroughly indulges the audience on these rowdier topics.
For instance, the strip joint Venus Club features a chandelier and poles made from numerous, multi-colored bras.
Morales, and her fellow exotic dancers, also appear in very revealing outfits.
When Morales finally took off her robe to reveal her stripper costume, there were audible whispers in the audience praising her fine form. A known exercise buff, Morales's toned abs and arms sizzled as she performed her routines along with the other scantily clad actresses, including former "Philippine Idol" contestant Apple Chiu, showing off her ample cleavage.
But it was Seguerra, who ultimately stole the thunder from her sultry co-stars, when she briefly came out of her character Regina to play one of the strippers, wearing fish-net stockings and a black bikini bottom and doing the sexy routine while winking at the audience.
Seguerra already caught the audience's attention early on when she made her entrance against type as Regina wearing a long hippie dress and a head scarf, even flirting with the very effete Franz.
But Seguerra didn't just flash some skin; she also showed a whole range in her voice, belting high notes you didn't know she could do based on her acoustic hits.
The play's rock numbers require the performers to stretch their vocal chords. And just as Seguerra proved to be a revelation, Volante also showed he could do rock screams with the best of them.
Morales, who is a known belter, also showed a rougher edge to her vocals, restraining her usual melisma without losing its power, as she effectively took on rock ballads like "Harden My Heart" and the duet "High Enough."
Ayesa, for his part, had the presence worthy of a Broadway star. His vocals were simply effortless, while shamelessly embracing the ridiculous fate of his character.
Indeed, everyone was given a chance to shine -- and they all grabbed the opportunity to make their mark. Wilson and Pangan were obviously having a ball, poking fun at their own rock 'n' roll lifestyles. Jinky Llamanzares, as the strip club manager, was flawless, and Reyes's consistent, complete. characterization was praise-worthy
But despite the laughs and the great cast, the real appeal of "Rock of Ages" lies mainly on its selection of songs, which not only help tell the story but even doubles as dialogue. Creator Chris D'Arienzo sometimes locates the songs in a comic context (wait for "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and "Can't Fight This Feeling") but he also transformed some of them like "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" amd "Here I Go Again," providing them with layers of emotion that probably didn't even exist before.
As the finale, "Don't Stop Believing" not only neatly summarizes the plot; it also imparts an inspiring message, no matter how hokey, that hits right into its audience's core. "Rock of Ages" may be a nostalgic sound trip for many who grew up in the '80s but it also reminds them that life should always rock.
"Rock of Ages" runs until July 8 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at the RCBC Plaza in Makati City.