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Music Meets History in "Rock & Roll Man"
"Rock & Roll Man"
Directed by Randal Myler
New World Stages
340 West 50 Street
Opened June 21, 2023
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons July 2, 2023
Photo by Joan Marcus
Recently we have seen a flood of musicals about our performing heroes: Michael Jackson, Cher, Neil Diamond, The Temptations. The list could go on. Less often, we see musicals about the people who made them famous. Shows like "Baby It’s You," which chronicled the rise of Florence Greenberg and Scepter Records, the label she inaugurated when she signed the Shirelles.
But now we have the off-Broadway show, "Rock & Roll Man," which tells the story of Alan Freed, the Cleveland DJ who gave Rock & Roll its name and then brought the genre to America’s youth. The show stars Constantine Maroulis (who achieved fame through American Idol and later in Broadway’s Rock of Ages) as Freed. This means that in the show, Freed can not only spin records; he can also sing the songs in Gary Kupper’s original score.
Despite Kupper’s contributions, the musical core of the show is the rock & roll classics introduced by singers like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, LaVern Baker, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Drifters, The Coasters, and The Platters. Certainly hits like “Tutti Frutti,” “Maybellene,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Yakety Yak,” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” overshadow anything Kupper has written, although his music fits in stylistically quite well.
Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak and Rosa Caiola’s book begins shortly before Freed’s death at the age of forty-three, after he has been destroyed by ill health, alcoholism and the federal government. But the story soon veers from realism into fantasy as Freed imagines himself on trail for destroying the morals of American youth.
The prosecution is led by J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Ari). Freed is defended by the flamboyant Little Richard (Rodrick Covington), who claims the basis of the prosecution is fraudulent. He, Little Richard, is responsible for rock & roll. This paves the way for the flashbacks that take us back to the Cleveland record store run by Leo Mintz (Joe Pantoliano), Freed’s partnering with the shady businessman and nightclub owner Morris Levy (Pantoliano again) and Freed’s disintegrating personal life.
The demands of presenting such an extensive score give the book writers and director Randall Myler little time to develop Freed’s character. But the show does make significant comments on the role Black people and Jews played in the world of music during the mid-twentieth century and the way payola (payments from record companies to play specific records) shaped the music industry.
But it is the polished performances of the cast, especially Covington as Little Richard, Andy Christopher as Buddy Holly, Matthew S. Morgan as Chuck Berry, Dominique Scott as Jerry Lee Lewis and Eric B. Turner as Bo Diddley that make "Rock & Roll Man" both rock and roll.
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