‘Rock of Ages’: Company’s joyous return in Norwell

Emily Lambert as Sherrie and Braden Masiaszek as Drew in “Rock of Ages.” Photo: The Company Theatre / Zoe Bradford

NORWELL – The return of live theater to the stage of the Company Theatre is a joyous occasion, and it was obvious at a recent performance the cast was enjoying it just as much – or maybe more – than the theater-goers who had been waiting 17 months for the privilege.

“Rock of Ages” was the troupe’s choice to re-open its Norwell home, and the feel-good jukebox musical, which earned five Tony nominations and spent six years on Broadway, is fast, funny, light and bright, a proven winner given a lively re-telling by a large cast.

The return to live theater is bittersweet in some ways. The theater’s beloved co-founder, Jordie Saucerman, passed away in July 2020 and this is the first production the theater has mounted without her. Her surviving co-founder, Zoe Bradford, paid tribute before a recent show to the many people – including subscribers who left their ticket money in place, to board members, to grant writers, to donors — who combined to make sure the theater would come out on the other side of the pandemic.

Emily Lambert as Sherrie in “Rock of Ages.” The Company Theatre / Zoe Bradford

Sally Ashton Forrest, Saucerman’s surviving spouse and the troupe’s longtime choreographer, remains on board, and her energetic, crowd-pleasing choreography got patrons up and out of their seats several times during a recent show, performed without an intermission.

The term “jukebox musical” has some critics looking down on a show before they even see it, but a show that comes in with a score that is already a proven platinum success (“Jersey Boys”) is already halfway home.

And “Rock of Ages’ has more than enough familiar musical anthems from the 1980’s hair-metal scene to keep everyone rocking.

The musical takes place on the Sunset Strip in 1987, in a bar called Dupree’s Bourbon Room, a headquarters of LA’s hair-metal scene.

Denise Dupree (Janis Hudson) is the tough but tender owner of the bar, a local institution threatened with extinction when the corrupt mayor of LA is snowed under by cash from an equally corrupt German developer named Franz (Christopher Spencer), who plans to clean up the strip by buying out the cash-strapped Denise.

That complicates the plans of her bar back, Drew (Braden Misiaszek), a city guy who becomes involved with a small-town girl named Sherrie (Emily Lambert), a waitress and aspiring actress. who encourages Drew to pursue his own rock-star dreams.

The musical’s book writer, Chris D’Arienzo, sprinkles humor throughout but falters when it comes to the scenes with Spencer as Franz and Kevin Groppe as his clueless son Hertz, who do their best with what they have to work with, deliberately murdering their German accents and Groppe emerging with at least a few laughs.

The reigning local rock star is the flamboyant Stacee Jaxx (Shane Hennessey), complete with blond hair that goes on forever, who is fronting the band Arsenal before ascending to full rock god status.

Denise engages him in a bid to save the club, but Stacee also takes advantage of the naïve and innocent Sherrie, snuffing out her budding romance with Drew and sending Sherrie in despair to become a stripper at the Venus Club.

Brad Reinking shows off his comic chops as Lonny, the puckish narrator who happens to pop up at the most inopportune times, including when Drew  follows his disastrous advice during his courtship of Sherrie

Steve Bass leads an energetic five-piece band that performs a who’s who of ‘80s hits ripe for singing along as well as dancing along when the mood strikes. Starship, Twisted Sister, Foreigner, and Pat Benatar are among the artists represented.

And, of course, there is a song that seemingly won’t ever go away – Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,” serving here as a show-stopping finale that had theater-goers up and rockin’ along, followed by an equally well-received encore.

A shout-out for set designer Ryan Barrow’s lively Bourbon Room, which works well with Allison Gordon’s costumes and Dean Palmer Jr.’s lighting to provide strong production values.

Director Zoe Bradford has crafted a production that stands up to the high standards she and the late Saucerman always set for themselves, and this “Rock of Ages” is a live – very live – production that skillfully and joyously welcomes theater-goers back.

The Company Theatre production of “Rock of Ages.” Book by Chris D’Arienzo. Arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp. Directed by Zoe Bradford. Musical direction by Steve Bass. Choreography by Sally Ashton Forrest. Costume design by Alison Gordon. Lighting design by Dean Palmer Jr. Set design by Ryan Barrow. Through Aug. 21 at the Company Theatre, 30 Accord Pond Drive, Norwell. CompanyTheatre.com.