Style only goes so far. But sometimes "so far" is a long, long way. Theatre Memphis' stylish take on The 39 Steps, an homage to cinematic suspense, murders any opportunity for tension or coherent storytelling, but the wounds bleed laughter.
The 39 Steps is a tough proposition — a balancing act between Hitchcocky storytelling and self-aware gags in the vein of a Seth MacFarlane cartoon. Only, instead of Family Guy's celebrity drop-ins, be on the lookout for clever allusions to Alfred's other films. Add to all that an impressive stunt factor: Four actors play somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 characters, revisiting events from movies that should be impossible to recreate onstage. Airplane chases, anybody?
Director Tony Isbell has unleashed a chaotic clown show, chock full of cheap theatrics and owing as much to the Marx Brothers as it does to Hitchcock's original spy flick.
The 39 Steps at Theatre Memphis through February 5th
Of all the jukebox musicals out there — good, bad, and terrible — I've always had the hardest time giving Rock of Ages a fair shake. It's like somebody went out of their way to pick all the music I rebelled against in high school and force-fit it into a thinly plotted romantic comedy set in the sleazy, testosterone-flooded hair-metal scene of L.A.'s Sunset Strip. So imagine my surprise when I found myself (mostly) enjoying Playhouse on the Square's energetic homage to the Reagan era, when everything was awful.
The story goes something like this: The economy is wrecked, city cores are crumbling, but it's morning in America so foreign investors are snapping up property and transforming local flavor into upscale homogeneity. Into the scene walks Sherrie, a young girl from the heartland, in painted-on, cut-off jeans, dreaming of work on the silver screen, even while she works the pole in a gentleman's club. A five-minute stand with a burnout rockstar in the men's room of the Bourbon Room (a stand-in for the Whiskey a Go Go) has wrecked her chances for real love and brought her to a place she never thought she'd be. Now she's holding out for a hero.
In this case, the real bad guy isn't the asshole rock star — a cross between David Lee Roth of Van Halen and Axl Rose. We recognize him from our first meeting, as someone spiraling toward oblivion and probably a toilet filled with his own vomit. The villain is a German real estate speculator with no compunctions about bulldozing rock clubs and putting up a retail shopping destination. The hero is busboy and would-be metal god Drew Boley, who only wants to rock. And maybe sip some wine coolers with a nice girl now and then.
There's always been a little teeny-tiny hint of Threepenny Opera in Rock of Ages, and director Scott Ferguson, and a rock-solid ensemble, find grace and meaning in L.A.'s slimy underbelly. Also garish silliness and a hard life lesson or two.
Kathryn Kilger is a fine fit for Sherrie, the good girl in a bad situation, and Chris Steinmetz is appropriately cringe-inducing as Stacee Jaxx, a petty boozed-up sack of garbage in too-tight pants. Isaac Middleton sometimes struggles with the brute force the songs require, but he overcomes all obstacles including the character's own piggish instincts. He makes you love him and makes the music work.
The glue holding everything together, however, is Stephen Garrett as Lonny, a rock-and-roll lifer, living for the city and the scene. He's part middle-aged Jim Morrison and part roadie for Spinal Tap. But he leads both the audience and his fellow characters through the show like stoner Bugs Bunny leading Elmer Fudd on a wild rabbit chase. You just know somebody's gonna get a big ol' kiss.
I'll never be a Journey fan. Or a Bon Jovi fan. Or all that into Quiet Riot. But if every production of Rock of Ages was as full and fun as this one, I could warm up to it pretty quickly — Against All Odds.
Rock of Ages at Playhouse on the Square through February 12th