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October 24, 2014

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Real rockers Arsenal fuel ‘Rock of Ages’ at the Venetian

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Steve Marcus

Members of Arsenal wait backstage before a performance of “Rock of Ages” on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, at the Venetian. Mark Shunock, who plays Lonny, is in the background (second right).

Updated Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014 | 10:20 a.m.

Kats With the Dish

Mark Shunock

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John Katsilometes and Tricia McCrone talk to Mark Shunock, who plays Lonny in "Rock of Ages" at the Venetian.

Backstage With Arsenal

Guitarist Andy Gerold, left, guitarist Chris Cicchino, center, and bassist Dan Grennes strike a pose on stage before a performance of Launch slideshow »

'Rock of Ages' Cast at Azure

Launch slideshow »

Amid the technology and instrumentation stockpiled in the Arsenal arsenal are molded pieces of plastic the performers press into their ears for each show.

Musicians commonly refer to these little devices as “in-ear monitors” or “in-ears” for short. Through these miniature speakers, the players can hear the music being played live onstage, any recorded music (aka “tracks”) in the show and directives from the bandleader. In “Rock of Ages,” the in-ears are invaluable, as they keep the musical at the Venetian from going off the rails (on a crazy train).

“We have a click track that keeps us all together,” says “Rock of Ages” music director and keyboard master Bryan McAdams. “It’s not really a ‘click.’ It sounds like a cowbell. But that keeps us from playing too fast and keeping the music in line with the pace of the show.”

Ding-ding-ding, relentlessly, in the ears of those players. The hidden rhythm tool is vastly important, keeping the show from running off time as musicians who are sometimes familiar with the material might subliminally play it a beat faster than intended.

“We’ve had guys come in, subbing in the show, saying, ‘I know we played that song slow. It just felt slow,’” McAdams says. “But it’s not. It’s right in time.”

That in-ear monitor, the click track and the calls from McAdams to his band mates are never summoned to the story of “Rock of Ages,” which is deep into its second year at the Venetian. The show features a dynamite cast of Broadway-caliber performers but leans heavily on that live band at the back of the stage.

“I honestly don’t think the show would be nearly as popular if it were tracked,” says associate music director Dave Richardson, who plays the keys and leads the band on the nights McAdams is off. “It used to be that shows in Las Vegas all used live musicians, but that is not a given anymore. This one really benefits from the power of the live performance coming from the stage.”

Arsenal’s lineup is full of top players. McAdams was schooled at Berkelee College of Music in Boston, a classically trained pianist who warms up by running through “Can’t Fight This Feeling ” by REO Speedwagon.

Richardson is one of the lead songwriters and keyboardists in Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns and also is a veteran of such Strip stage productions as the original “Mamma Mia!” and “Disney’s The Lion King” at Mandalay Bay.

The lineup is further stacked and easily capable of soaring through the show’s deep catalog of 1980s classics: Drummer Alan Childs has backed David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Julian Lennon and John Waite. His Broadway credits include “The Who’s Tommy,” “Rent,” “Aida,” “Hairspray,” “All Shook Up,” “Whistle Down the Wind” and “The Toxic Avenger.”

Lead guitarist Chris Cicchino performed in “Rock of Ages” on Broadway at Helen Hayes Theater and has twice toured with the production. He’s also performed with such rock giants as AC/DC’s Brian Johnson and Rob Halford of Judas Priest. Second guitarist Andy Gerold earned his stage cred (and gathered some groovy stories) from touring with Marilyn Manson. Bassist Dan Grennes also is a Berkelee Music grad and an accomplished singer, songwriter and session musician who has won an American Music Award for Best New Music as a member of The Bomb Squad. He also appeared in the musical “American Idiot.”

This crew emanates a rock-band vibe. Backstage, the scene is strewn with customized electric guitars, torn-black jeans and shirts, bandanas — not at all evoking traditional musical theater. The guys amp up for the show by drinking two varieties of coffee: There is “Red Eye,” which is a cup of black coffee with a shot of espresso. “Black Eye” is that same cup o’ joe infused with two espresso shots.

The guys talk menacingly of some variety of coffee that is even stronger than “Black Eye,” which is available only online.

They wear gear seemingly pulled from their own overnight bags but is actually attire approved by the show’s producers. Often an individual might be depicted on a band member’s shirt and no one knows the artist’s identity. This happened with a black-and-white shot of … someone … on a T-shirt worn for the stage, which led to something of a guessing game among the musicians.

“Is that Marilyn Manson?” Grennes asks.

“No,” says Gerold, who should know because he shared the stage with Manson. “Bowie, I think.”

The tales are vintage rock ‘n’ roll. Gerold was performing with Manson onstage at the Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel and was pushed almost off the stage by show’s headliner.

“He just started pushing me, angrily, and I don’t know why,” says Gerold, who was playing bass on that tour. “I made him mad somehow.”

Asked the largest crowd for which he has ever performed, Childs is not particularly eager to recall the gig.

“Ah, it was, 110,000 at Rock in Rio,” he says. “I was with Debbie Gibson at the time. Remember her? We were in a lineup with David Bowie, Billy Idol, those types. And they’re asking me, ‘Who are you here with?’ ‘Um, I’m rockin’ it with Debbie Gibson.’ ”

The band is proud of the live characteristics of the performance, which requires spot-on timing to perform just as a piece of dialogue ends. The sound cues in “Rock of Ages” are typically a pause or a shouted line. When Justin Mortelliti as Drew calls out “I wanna rock!” the band, en masse, has to be there to leap into that song. If not, McAdams (or Richardson) are in the players’ ears to stitch the group back together.

“We can have things go wrong, like any show,” Richardson says. “It helps to have experienced players because if you lose the click track — which can happen — you go by feel, and it’s more like a real jam session.”

Though the audience is not aware, off to the sides of the performance backstage are a pair of vocal booths. Skeptics often hear backing vocals from production shows and expect they are tracked in over the show’s sound system. Not so in “Rock of Ages” (and this is true in many productions, including “Mamma Mia!” during both of its Las Vegas stints). Two booths at stage left and stage right are equipped with two microphones apiece.

When performers are not reciting script or singing in front of the audience, they hustle to those posts and sing backup, with the performance monitored by the sound team and music director.

“It’s easy to track the vocals, but we don’t,” McAdams says. “This is all live, all of it.”

McAdams says he does understand the need for some productions to use recorded music and vocals — some extensively, and others even entirely. The use of tracks is more prevalent in live entertainment than ever. Suffice to say many of the Strip’s most popular shows do lean on tracks in ways that are entirely undetected by the audience.

Naturally, that practice helps keep the whole performance precise, and, undeniably, using recorded music is less expensive than paying a human being who has likely spent his or her life honing a specific art form.

Many performers in Strip musicals are conflicted about how, or even if, to use recorded tracks.

“I’ve looked at this from every angle,” McAdams says. “I’ve been in this field for 30 years, at this point, and I understand the business requirements for keeping a show onstage. I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve gone. But for me, as a musician, as a fan, as an artist, I love the live feel. You can’t replace it.”

And with that, the leader of the band gulps down a mouthful of “Red Eye” and heads for the stage. It is time to rock.

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

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