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July 31, 2014

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With ‘Rock of Ages’ leading the charge, Las Vegas has max headroom for ‘80s nostalgia

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Denise Truscello/WireImage/DeniseTruscello.net

The “Rock of Ages” grand opening at the Venetian on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013.

'Rock of Ages' Grand Opening at Venetian

The Launch slideshow »

2012 NASCAR Champion's Week: 'Rock of Ages' at Victory Lap

Cast members of Launch slideshow »

Rehearsal for 'Rock of Ages'

Rehearsal for Launch slideshow »

The moment I got into “Rock of Ages” was not last weekend during its formal premiere at the Venetian. It was months ago in New York, at the rustic Helen Hayes Theater, a dignified haven hardly befitting a rock concert.

The moment that stopped me nostalgically was not the sly reference to Chaka Khan tucked into the musical’s script, or the scene in which lead characters Drew and Sherry spread out a blanket in front and break out a four-pack of wine coolers (I so wanted to shake those kids and tell them they would one day remember that wine coolers were about the nastiest beverage ever bottled).

It wasn’t even when the show’s central character and narrator, Lonny, nimbly flips through a Rolodex at center stage to retrieve a phone number.

No, it was during the sax intro to “Harden My Heart,” by Quarterflash. Suddenly, I was not stuffed into my seat at the Helen Hayes Theater. It was the old Mazda 626 my parents allowed me to recklessly navigate for a couple of years in high school until the vehicle, from a mechanical standpoint, announced, “I am finished.” That is the car that blared with Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” on the day I took my first driving test. If “Juke Box Hero” were to be performed in “Rock of Ages,” that would be the time to rush the stage.

It’d been probably 25 years, no kidding, since I’d heard “Harden My Heart.” When that far-off sax riff cut through the theater, I let out a laugh and turned to two guys sitting next to me and said, “Seriously?” They were laughing, too.

It’s not that the song is substandard, certainly not by the standards of 1980s pop. But no one in the early ’80s could have envisioned “Harden My Heart” being showcased in a legitimate Broadway musical. I also would venture the same of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,’ ” not even the best song on “Escape,” which of course was the album you needed to tilt sideways to properly read the band’s name. And yet, over time, that song has bloomed into an anthem of the era and is the wildly appreciated show closer of “Rock of Ages.”

So it is that “Harden My Heart,” “Just Like Paradise” by David Lee Roth, “We Built This City” by Starship,” “Heat of the Moment” by Asia, “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake (whose frontman, David Coverdale, provides the recorded warning about cell phone use before the show) and “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon” (the legacy of which is now as a gay anthem in the show) help carry “Rock of Ages.”

For the children of the 1980s, this is our “Hair” or “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the stage classics of the Baby Boomers. I love the Boomers, honestly -- my parents are two of my favorite people. But let someone else on the nostalgia-as-entertainment playground, OK? The 1980s brethren might not have a Woodstock, but I’ll see your Woodstock with the US Festival (U2, the Clash, Scorpions, Van Halen among the acts during that one-off mass gathering) and raise you two Live Aids.

It is long past time for our era to be delivered such a show. It’s not just “Rock of Ages,” either, but seedlings of ’80s nostalgia have been sprouting from the dirt recently. “Legwarmers: An ‘80s Musical” is a show not in the class of “Rock of Ages,” naturally, but at least its heart is in the right place (though singing something from Heart would be a good idea). On Sunday at the “Our Town for Newtown” fundraiser at Railhead in Boulder Station, the capacity crowd was reminded of the great joy in a performance by the Spazmatics (joined that day by Brent Muscat of Sin City Sinners). The Spazmatics put on ’80s-themed throwback dance parties all over town, at Sunset Station on Fridays (9 p.m.), South Point Showroom on Saturdays (10 p.m.), Fremont Street Experience on Tuesdays and Carnival Court at Harrah’s (1:30-6 p.m.).

We applaud these shows, or even start “The Wave,” chiefly because children of the ’80s enjoy a return to adolescence as much as anyone. We’re overjoyed to know Def Leppard (a force from that decade) is following the Who into the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel this year. Rush -- I mean, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Rush -- still makes regular tour stops in VegasVille, and even Van Halen (with a croaky David Lee Roth giving his all as the indefatigable frontman) played MGM Grand Garden Arena in 2012.

But “Rock of Ages” is a permanent deal, or we hope it to be, playing nightly at 8 at Rock of Ages Theater in the Venetian (shows at 7 and 10 Saturdays, dark Mondays). There are dozens of deft asides indicating that producers BASE Entertainment and the show’s creative team (principally, director Kristin Hanggi, choreographer Kelly Devine, music supervisor David Gibbs and book writer Chris D’Arienzo) understand the subject matter. Some elements are obvious (mullets, generally giant hair, Spandex as costumes) but others not so much: a giant, of-its-era “portable” mobile phone and side references ranging from John Sununu to Molly Ringwald.

There is a story around which “Rock of Ages” cavorts, but the plot knows its place. Similar to the wedding dilemma at the center of “Mamma Mia!” -- the show that most closely resembles “Rock of Ages” -- the plot is weighty enough only to serve as a launching pad for the show’s quick-hitting humor. The Bourbon Room, the show’s main stage, is flanked by such 1980s-familiar artifacts as a “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” egg-in-a-frying-pan PSA and the recognizable (for many of us, anyway) Budweiser ad in which three babes are stretched along a beach blanket in one-pieces bearing the beer’s famed logo.

Having met the cast, I feel that they are fired up about being in Vegas, and their performance is as energetic as I’ve seen in any show in the city. They seem familiar, too, as if they did step out of the enlivened decade in which they depict. We name check those we hope make Vegas home for a long time: Carrie St. Louis (Sherrie), Kyle Lowder (Stacee Jaxx), Mark Shunock (Lonny), Troy Burgess (Dennis), Kevin Hegmann (Franz), Markesha McCoy (Justice), Alyson Nicole Bloom (Regina) and Robert Torti (Hertz).

The band, as we say, burns it up. Hold a lighter to it. The production wouldn’t work with tracked music. To try that would be, to use a long-ago term, bogus.

But the show, and its effort, are totally, totally bitchin’. Take it from someone who knows. And remembers.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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