The jukebox genre, incorporating established pop or rock hit tunes without or without a biographical storyline to tie them together, has been flooding Broadway for decades with specimens ranging from top-shelf (MJ, Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, Beautiful: The Carol King Musical) to bottom of the barrel (Good Vibrations, Leader of the Pack, Baby It’s You). Rock & Roll Man, the latest entry in the nostalgia sweepstakes now at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, falls somewhere in the middle. This time instead of a performing superstar or group, the subject is disc jockey Alan Freed, who popularized the earliest purveyors of rock and roll music on his 1950s and ’60s radio shows in Cleveland and New York City and is credited with coining the phrase “rock and roll” itself (though there are various sources attributing the first use of the label to Billboard columnist Maurie Orodenker in the early 1940s).
The sizzling, sexy songs Freed brought to the masses including “Lucille” by Little Richard, “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry and dozens of others form the majority of the score—and are put across with excitement by a vital cast. Kudos also to the music supervision and arrangements by Gary Kupper and Dave Keyes. These hits are augmented by generic original tunes by Kupper.
The book by Kupper, Larry Marshak and Rose Caiola is a by-the-number affair tracing Freed’s rise to media dominance on the airwaves and in a string of youth-oriented movies and his crash to obscurity and alcoholism after scandals involving payola and undeserved songwriting credits. The book-writing trio’s cringeworthy framing device is a hokey dream sequence where a middle-aged Freed is on trial for his legacy in the court of public opinion. The flamboyant Little Richard is his defense attorney and J. Edgar Hoover, the priggish, puritanical head of the FBI, serves as prosecutor. The ironic fact that both figures were gay men, representing opposite ends of the political spectrum, is only briefly touched on and is a missed opportunity. The book also gives a once-over-lightly examination of the African-American roots of rock and the appropriation of black singers’ originals by white cover artists like Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. But the show is basically an entertainment, not a sociological essay.
Despite the silly “trial” template and the half-hearted stabs at cultural studies, Rock & Roll Man is a fun party, slickly and rapidly staged by Randal Myler. Freed’s story zips by, and we get to the music as fast as possible, which is the raison d’être of the piece. Constantine Maroulis displays versatility and stamina as Freed, appearing in almost every scene, and delivering solid vocals ranging from whispery ballads to roof-shaking rock tunes. Joe Pantoliano, best known as scummy Ralph Cifaretto on The Sopranos, expertly plays two divergent and influential figures in Freed’s career: lovable, avuncular record-store owner Leo Mintz and shark-like, mobbed-up producer Morris Levy. Roderick Covington exudes charisma and sparkle as Little Richard while Bob Ari is a frightening, villainous Hoover. The remaining rock legends are embodied with zest and zing by Valisa Lekae, Matthew S. Morgan, Jamonte, and Dominique Scott. This is a rockin’ good time if you overlook the judicial interruptions of the great music.