Northern Michigan University Theatre & Dance will present Rock of Ages, a gritty and glamorous jukebox musical about the tail end of the classic ‘80s rock & roll era in Hollywood. The production is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. June 14-17 and 21-24 in Forest Roberts Theatre. It marks the directorial debut of NMU adjunct assistant professor Kristen Beth Williams, who is also choreographing the show. Beyond her educator role, she is a professional actor/singer/dancer with an extensive career spanning Broadway, national tours and regional theaters across the country.
Rock of Ages features songs from Bon Jovi, Journey, Poison, Styx, Whitesnake and other artists to complement the storyline about aspiring rock star Drew. He longs to take the stage as the next big thing. Drew also longs for small-town girl Sherrie, an aspiring actress fresh off the bus from Kansas with stars in her eyes. But the rock & roll fairytale is about to end when German developers sweep into town with plans to turn the fabled Strip into just another capitalist strip mall. Can Drew, Sherrie and the gang save the legendary area—and themselves—before it's too late?
“Out of all the jukebox musicals I've seen or been part of, this is the best in terms of how it's put together,” Williams said. “If you listen to any 80s classic rock station for a period of time, you will hear most of the songs featured in this. The songs really help push the storyline forward in a way that they sometimes don't. Very few are purely performance. Most are carefully woven into the plot and reflect the characters' mental and emotional states. And the vocal arrangements are astonishing. There are some clever mashups, and some are almost verbatim to what you'd hear on the radio.”
Williams said the musical exemplifies a dichotomy that existed at the height of the glam rock era. Grungy, gritty excess and debauchery that permeated the Sunset Strip is countered by elements of glamour when the bands take the stage in “makeup, sequins, sparkles and flames.”
To fill the acting roles, Williams literally cast a wide net. NMU students are certainly featured, including John Thomson of Marquette. He is playing Drew in Rock of Ages after starring as Danny in the spring production of Grease. Thomson will be joined onstage by two faculty members with Broadway experience: Paul Truckey and Jimmy Ludwig, who is also Williams' husband. Rounding out the cast are three performers from St. Louis, New York and New Jersey; NMU alumni; and Marquette-area community members, including Blackrocks Brewery co-founder Andy Langlois.
Williams just completed her first academic year as part of the NMU Theatre & Dance faculty. She is passionate about educating the next generation of performers and has taught master classes in musical theater dance styles, audition technique, acting through song, and musical theater scene study.
“When the pandemic shut down theaters, Jimmy and I pivoted to education, teaching for a conservatory-style program in New York,” she said. “We joined Northern last fall. The moment you see the lightbulb go off on a student's face when they get it and latch onto something you've been trying to get them to find on their own, is so remarkable and rewarding.”
Please note that Rock of Ages contains strobe effects and strong adult language and themes, suggestive dancing, and portrayals of alcohol and drug use.
Tickets are $17 for the general public, $12 for NMU faculty/staff, seniors and military; $10 for students; and $5 for NMU students. They can be purchased at nmu.universitytickets.com.