When it comes to popular music, Broadway audiences (and even most critics) have shown forbearance and an almost insatiable taste for imitation goods done well: the fictional Dreams (read: Supremes) of Dreamgirls, for example; the up-and-coming R&B stars promoted by disc jockey Huey Calhoun (read: Dewey Phillips) in Memphis;and teen TV dance-a-thoner Corny Collins (read: Buddy Dean) in the Baltimore-set Hairspray. Those rock 'n roll hits – along with nonfiction jukebox biotuners including Jersey Boys and the newest entry, Ain’t Too Proud – have of late been nearly as irresistible to producers as the back catalogues of Hollywood studios.
It’s little surprise, then, that we have a show about Alan Freed, the Cleveland-based DJ credited with coining the very term rock 'n roll as an alternative to “race music” and even “rhythm and blues” that had previously been relegated to radio stations and record shops serving black audiences. Before the payola scandals, J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession, and booze ending his career and then life at 43, Freed was a relentless advocate of the integration of American pop music. That meant not only championing the songs of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino, but refusing to play the Maypo covers of their songs by white crooners like Pat Boone. Freed is the reason the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is located in Cleveland, and why he was among the first inductees.
Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story, now having a tryout at the nonprofit Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Mass., trips the lite of that story. Replete with a hard-working cast of imitators, it aims to conjure the joyous energy of legends, among them Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Buddy Holly and Frankie Lymon, along with those mentioned.
To some extent, the show, produced with Broadway “enhancement” from several commercial producers (a kind of payola that exists in legal form today), captures that energy. A quartet of male singers (Early Clover, A.J. Davis, Jerome Jackson and Dr. Eric B. Turner), impersonating several different groups, create lovely harmony on “Sincerely” and infectious fun on “60-Minute Man” and “Yakety Yak.” And Richard Crandle is amusing as the over-the-top Little Richard. The audience at the Sunday matinee I attended frequently chimed in on melodies and phrases imprinted in the nostalgia loops of our brains.
But as imitation goods go, Rock and Roll Man has more in common with the $10 Louis Vuitton bags and Patek Philippe watches than with costlier merchandise. While tipping its hat to Freed’s multiple demons, the book by Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak and Rose Caiola is crude and anachronistic. The set-up is a courtroom where the jury (that’s us) is to determine Freed’s legacy. An early sponsor tells him “this could be a game-changer,” and Freed’s New York chum, club owner and allegedly mobbed-up impresario Morris Levy says without apparent irony, “This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.” One could go on…
Kupper also contributes a few original songs as interstitial material, about which the less said, the better.
Similarly, the key central performances, by Alan Campbell as Freed and long-ago Cheers co-star George Wendt as Hoover, are sub-professional. Campbell, who first appeared floating facedown in Norma Desmond’s pool in the original Broadway production of Sunset Boulevard, is quite nearly as lifeless here. Wendt is as stiff and clueless-seeming as the silly dialogue he’s saddled with.
Randal Myler’s awkward staging on Tim Mackabee’s Dollar General set is par for the rest of this ungainly course, as is Brian Reeder’s hapless choreography for a game company. Rock and roll may be here to stay, but Rock and Roll Man needs a trip back to the drawing board before aiming for the neon lights on Broadway.