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Theatre in Review: The Heart of Rock and Roll (James Earl Jones Theatre)

Tommy Bracco and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Stop the presses! The headline news of the day is The Heart of Rock and Roll is...not bad.

It is obvious by now that we at Lighting&Sound America take a dim view of the jukebox musical format, seeing it as the theatrical equivalent of Dutch elm disease or maybe those cicadas that are imminently targeting Illinois. Although we won't hear a word against Mamma Mia!, we fear its creators are bound for Hell, having planted the idea in so many minds that all you need for a hit show is some borrowed pop tunes and a jerry-built story that sort of -- but not really -- accommodates them. (We will deal with the bio-musical on another day when we have the strength.) But this approach hardly guarantees box office success. For every & Juliet, there are plenty of money pits like Good Vibrations, Head Over Heels, Escape to Margaritaville, and Once Upon a One More Time. Producers: Hire dedicated songwriters! You'll increase your chances of ending up crowded around the podium on Tony night.

The Heart of Rock and Roll, which draws on the Huey Lewis and the News hit list, is certainly as airheaded as its predecessors, albeit in a rather more amusing way. Jonathan A. Abrams' book, based on a story by him and Tyler Mitchell -- yes, it took two people to cobble together this plot -- follows the fortunes of Bobby, a would-be rock god turned factory worker, bent on getting ahead at a Milwaukee box company. Fired for mixing in where he shouldn't -- his boss, Mr. Stone, takes a dim view of factory floor staff making like sales executives -- Bobby crashes a Chicago trade show, determined to land an account with a famous Swedish furniture named Fjord. (That's correct; if you choose to see The Heart of Rock and Roll, you have a Fjord in your future.)

Before you can say "lingonberry sauce," Bobby signs Fjord to a deal guaranteed to save Stone's nearly bankrupt business. But, just as it seems Bobby will be maxing out an expense account and dating Stone's winsome, numbers-crunching daughter Cassandra, the members of his old band come calling, begging him to sit in for a single reunion performance. They end up rocking the house, causing a record label to offer a contract and tour. But wait -- what about the joys of box-making?

This less-than-earthshaking conflict is served up with plenty of eighties-era references -- Mike Wallace, of all people, makes a cameo appearance -- and a host of manufactured plot devices. For one thing, Fjord is more madman than mogul, holding faintly kinky business conferences in saunas. Also, the burgeoning romance between Bobby and Cassandra is threatened by Tucker, Cassandra's slimy college ex, a financier with Gordon Gekko tendencies. (Giving up his stockbroker career, he says, humbly, "I finally figured out what's truly important in life: private equity.") And the shameless appearance of a heretofore unknown letter from Bobby's late dad -- another might-have-been musician -- somehow makes everyone's problems go poof, just in time for a rousing chorus of "The Power of Love."

Still, Abrams provides the character with some amusing bits, and, for whatever reason, the musical numbers fit their situations reasonably well. I suspect a fair amount of rewriting has taken place. (Rest assured: All the hits are present, including "Hip to Be Square" and "Workin' for a Livin'") Or this may be an illusion because Lorin Latarro's choreography distracts us with its parade of witty concepts, including a tap dance on bubble warp, a chorus line of Princetonian glee club types, a wild workout with a Richard Simmons clone, and the opening number at the "1987 Midwest Packaging Association Awards Ceremony." Her chef-d'oeuvre is a dream ballet in which Cassandra imagines married life in the suburbs with Tucker: day drinking, pill-popping, adultery, and illegitimate babies falling from the sky.

Under Gordon Greenberg's pacey, good-natured direction, the leads carry a heavy load, but the supporting characters harvest all the laughs. Without Corey Cott's big voice and enormous charm, Bobby would barely register as a character, even during his big Say Anything moment near the end; similarly, McKenzie Kurtz does all that anyone can do with the inhibited Cassandra, and John Dossett's Mr. Stone is the kind of dear-old-dad role he can probably play in his sleep, Much more entertaining are Billy Harrigan Tighe, a double-jointed perpetual motion machine as Tucker (whose idea of a seductive come-on is, "Can I buy you a fro-yo?"), and Orville Mendoza, who wields a mean sauna whisk as Fjord. Thieving scene after scene is Tamika Lawrence as Roz, the box company's human resources specialist ("If you'll excuse me, I'm late for my goddamn sensitivity training") and the show's voice of cold common sense.

Derek McLane's set design renders the factory interior, the trade show floor, and the roof of Chicago's Drake Hotel with equal elan -- the boom-box show curtain is a fun touch -- backed by Japhy Weideman's lighting, which does many inventive things with an upstage wall of strip lights and battens. Jen Caprio's costumes capture the years of big shoulder pads and power suits aided by Nikiya Mathis' hair, wigs, and makeup, all of which revel in Reagan-era excess. John Shivers' sound design is so loud that, at times, it seemingly thwarts comprehension; this is also partly the fault of Brian Usifer's orchestrations, which sometimes overwhelm the voice.

I'm not suggesting that you rush out and buy tickets to The Heart of Rock and Roll. But if you find yourself sitting in the James Earl Jones, you'll likely find time flying by in a rush of music, dancing, and wisecracks. If nothing else, it's a pleasant way to close out the season. --David Barbour

(9 May 2024)

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