Entertainment & Arts

Rock of Ages: the Mamma Mia! for men

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Media captionJustin Lee Collins and Oliver Tompsett say the musical is a celebration of the 1980s

Rock anthems, power ballads and big hair come to the West End, as the musical Rock of Ages opens in the UK.

When Rock of Ages first opened on Broadway in 2009, it was an instant hit with crowds and critics and went on to earn five Tony award nominations.

Set on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip in 1987, it tells the story of Drew, a boy from South Detroit, and small-town girl Sherrie, who fall in love as they dream of stardom.

Featuring classic rock songs from the 1980s, it includes 30 hits by the likes of Journey, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon.

And now the testosterone-fuelled show, full of long-haired rockers and women dressed in stockings and suspenders, has made its way to the West End - and it hopes to encourage more fans to come along for the ride.

Kristin Hanggi, who was nominated for a Tony award for her direction of the Broadway production, has brought the show to the UK.

"We were all surprised when we got great reviews in New York and were nominated because we never thought of ourselves as an awards show," she says. "We were the silly fun show that happens to be smart underneath it all."

'Cool credibility'

As US shows have not always been successful in the UK, the director admits to making a few changes and adding some inside jokes for British audiences.

"Before we opened to previews there was a scary feeling of 'would this work? Are the sense of humours too different?'," says Hanggi.

"But a great gauge for that is our actors - they're all English - and if in rehearsal everyone is laughing, then you know that will translate to an audience."

The UK cast features some seasoned West End performers, as well as supporting roles from 2005's X Factor winner Shayne Ward - as bad boy rock star Stacee Jaxx - and presenter Justin Lee Collins - as music club owner, Dennis Dupree.

Musical theatre is a departure for Ward, who released his third album last year, and auditioned for the part after watching clips of the Broadway show on YouTube.

"I didn't see it as another West End show," he says. "I'd not seen this type of production before and there was a cool credibility about it.

"We're pushing the boundaries - we've turned the theatre into The Bourbon Room, so you get served alcohol at your seat which doesn't happen at other shows."

Adult themes

The lead role of Drew is played by Oliver Tompsett, who previously starred in the hit West End musical Wicked for three years.

The actor says the role is not without its challenges: "Vocally, in my opinion, this is one of the most demanding roles there is in musical theatre for men.

Image caption Justin Lee Collins gets to flex his vocal muscles as club owner Dennis Dupree

"Those big power ballads had guys with super-high tenor voices - it's a big, big sing."

With its roll call of guilty pleasure songs, light-hearted script and risque costumes, Rock of Ages is being seen as a "Mamma Mia! for men".

"You always hear of women dragging their husbands and boyfriends to the theatre, so we thought it would be fun to make a musical that would be as appealing to men as it would be to women," says Hanggi.

Ward adds: "The majority are men, but the other side is made up of women who always wanted to be groupies.

"It's definitely one for men to see women dancing around in leather, without the missus telling them off."

Tompsett agrees: "The wives will find it easier to convince their husbands to see this show than they would Mamma Mia!"

There are some "adult themes" in the show including strip club scenes, and some swearing, , so parental guidance has been advised.

"In the US we say you should probably be over 13 to come," says Hanggi. "I've seen really young children in the audience and it goes over their head, but every parent knows their child and what is appropriate for them."

Hollywood adaptation

Building on its Broadway success, a film version is currently in production, directed by Adam Shankman, who brought Hairspray to the big screen in 2007.

It features a host of stars, including Russell Brand in the narrator role, Alec Baldwin as Dennis Dupree, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tom Cruise, in the role of Stacee Jaxx.

Image caption Oliver Tompsett starred in Wicked for three years before Rock of Ages

According to Hanggi, the film's storyline "is a bit different" to the musical. Changes include making Drew more clean cut and Stacee Jaxx less of a bad boy.

Due for release in June 2012, it will undoubtedly boost ticket sales for the musical, as Mamma Mia! did for its stage equivalent.

"I think it will be fun to see what it does to our show and hopefully the two will have a symbiotic relationship," says Hanggi.

With the show already a hit in the US, Canada and Australia, Hanggi says she doesn't feel too much pressure to replicate its success, but has a "desire to connect with British audiences".

Tompsett adds: "In a way it's great to know you're dealing with a show the masses have loved, and during our first weeks of previews we've discovered British audiences are loving it as well.

"There are so many cult 80s songs in this show, so if you like them and you want to have a good night and a laugh - and who doesn't - this is definitely the show to come to see."

Rock of Ages is at London's Shaftesbury Theatre.

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