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Theatre in Review: Rock & Roll Man (New World Stages)

Give credit where it is due: The creators of Rock & Roll Man want to reinvent the pop bio-musical formula. But, oh baby, what they've come up with. Of course, such creative initiative is admirable; this musical genre is so omnipresent that the standard format -- tracing a star's (or stars') rise, fall, and bittersweet comeback -- has become numbingly familiar. In this case, however, the creators apply a bizarre element of fantasy to a book so rickety that you'll never believe it took three people to write it.

To be sure, authors Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak, and Rose Caiola have a tough subject in Alan Freed, the DJ/promoter/producer whose meteoric rise and fast flameout happened before the first beachhead of the British invasion. Freed, who promoted a legion of electrifying Black artists, is credited here with inventing the category of rock and roll; well, probably not, but he certainly made it a household term, one which struck terror in the hearts of parents worried about race mixing and sexual abandon.

Rock & Roll Man begins with Freed in retirement, a has-been at 43, dogged by legal problems and drowning in a bottle of booze. What follows is a two-act dream sequence in which he is tried in a heavenly court of public opinion presided over by a judge in spangly black robes. The prosecuting attorney is J. Edgar Hoover, here presented as Freed's longtime enemy; arguing for the defense is Little Richard, in a gold lame jumpsuit and full pompadour. With a lineup like that, the show is, arguably, the strangest Pride Month attraction ever.

It's also a notably maladroit setup, loose-limbed enough to make room for arthritic gags about Hoover's alleged penchant for cross-dressing and a pandering, out-of-left-field sketch in which Little Richard lasciviously devours a black-and-white ice cream cone while commenting on race. But what really stalls the show is the attempt at valorizing Freed, in real life a handful and a trouble magnet who left behind a trail of broken relationships, lawsuits, and criminal associations.

We first see Freed as a radio DJ in Cleveland, bored with the whipped-cream sounds of early-Fifties pop. Then he meets Leo Mintz, whose shop, Record Rendezvous, is packed with Black and white kids frantically jitterbugging to little-known rhythm-and-blues artists. Freed instantly becomes a rock-and-roll evangelist, running up big ratings for his station and staging live concerts that threaten to become riot scenes. Soon, New York comes calling and, installed at WINS, he builds an empire that includes concert tours, films, and television.

By now, however, Freed is linked to the mobbed-up music industry entrepreneur Morris Levy, and soon the sour notes proliferate: a nasty run-in with the Boston police; accusations of credit-stealing on hit songs, and -- the big one -- the notorious payola scandal in which Freed and other DJs are caught trading cash for access to their playlists. The book tries to smooth over such unpleasantries, arguing that Hoover, who has it in for Freed, digs up a little-known law to prosecute him for bribery; Freed's counterargument, that he works as an impartial record company consultant, gets a full airing, too. It's putting it mildly that Freed worked on a sliding moral scale, which is the main reason that Rock & Roll Man never knows what to make of him. If it can't endow him with a rogue's charm, it also fails at the tougher analysis that might have allowed him both his considerable flaws and his place in rock history.

All this makes playing Freed a daunting challenge, but Constantine Maroulis does his considerable best and his voice is in sterling shape. (Sandwiched in among the classic tunes are several new songs, with music and lyrics by Kupper, designed to address the plot.) One of the production's better ideas is having Joe Pantoliano play faithful friend Leo in Act I and violent, backstabbing Morris in Act II. Bob Ari holds onto his dignity as Hoover, even when sashaying around in a slip and wig. If Rodrick Covington plays Little Richard without shame, how else would one do it?

. Of course, the show exists to roll out a 1950s hit parade, and whenever Valisia LeKae turns up as LaVern Baker, offering supercharged takes on "Jim Dandy" and "See See Rider," Rock & Roll Man acquires a pulse. Matthew S. Morgan provides an additional energy boost as Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Chuck Berry. Other members of the ensemble bring to life The Moonglows, giving us "Sincerely;" The Coasters, whipping up an audience call and response in "Yakety Yak;" and The Platters in their peerless arrangement of Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

Tim Mackabee's two-level set quickly and efficiently transforms into various stories, studios, theatres, and nightclubs, often featuring kicky, large-scale signage. Filling out each look are Christopher Ash's projections of city streets, period postcards, and newspaper headlines. The lighting, by Matthew Richards and Aja M. Jackson, is filled with saturated colors and ballyhoos. Leon Dobkowski's costumes faithfully recreate the era's looks -- tiny waists and full skirts for the women, and matching, meticulously tailored jackets for the male singing groups -- although the wigs are, across the board, unconvincing. Ed Chapman's sound design is of variable quality; some of the ensemble numbers have a boxy, hollow quality, while others have a solid electric charge.

Musically engaging, yet borderline inept in its storytelling,Rock & Roll Man would be better off dropping the book altogether and restyling itself as a revue à la Smokey Joe's Café The details of Freed's private life are so carelessly handled that they are almost impossible to grasp, although his neglected, but dutiful, daughter Alana shows up from time to time, casting longing looks in his direction. (His marriages are barely acknowledged.) And, thanks to that nutty courtroom concept, the show ends up in some kind of astral-plane record store where everyone tries, unsuccessfully, to get misty about his accomplishments. The show is what it is: If people want to drop in at New World Stages for a couple of cocktails and some great oldies, it's no business of mine. But there are so many good musicals in town! --David Barbour

(26 June 2023)

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