‘Rock and Roll Man,” having its world premiere at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse, is what I call a “trowel play.”
It relates a story worth telling, it keeps interest going, and it peppers book scenes — biographical sequences from the life and career of seminal pop music deejay Alan Freed — with rousing renditions of classic 1950s and ’60s tunes. But it also piles information and sentiment in heavy-handed ways that tell the audience what to feel and think instead of letting it arrive at conclusions on its own.
Of course there are scenes that seem more cannily constructed and theatrically polished than the majority that beg for empathy towards a frequently hounded or misunderstood Freed.
The trouble is “Rock and Roll Man” recruits you rather than engages you. It simplistically paints villains, specifically George Wendt’s J. Edgar Hoover, as single-dimensioned moralists, which might be true but needs to be brought out by more texture and craft rather than being hand-delivered as a given. More simply put, “Rock and Roll Man” usually takes the easy or most pandering way out when Freed’s story would be better told with more tension and at least an idea that both sides might have a point.
As literature or playwriting, “Rock and Roll Man’’ is expedient and unsophisticated.
Luckily, for BCP and its audience, theater is more than the script writers Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak, and Rose Caiola need to refine if they want to move “Rock and Roll Man” forward.
Theater, in this case, includes music and production numbers. It also includes individual performance, and in these elements, Randal Myler’s production for BCP shines. Its musical sequences, whether borrowed from the pop canon or provided fresh by Kupper, breathe life, hope, lightness, and even majesty into the show. Freed may be interesting and J. Edgar Hoover determined, but it’s Little Richard, LaVern Baker, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and others who steal the bacon and give “Rock and Roll Man” snatches of a fun-filled party.
Myler’s finest hour might be in his casting. Note by note, you hear his actors faithfully reproduce some wonderfully exciting sounds. They return us, as a famous saying goes, to the thrilling days of yesteryear. The 1950s live again, and you have to believe Danny and the Juniors when they tell you rock and roll is here to stay.
These numbers show the gratitude we should extend to Freed more than any clunky book can. They are the material that not only gives “Rock and Roll Man” vibrancy, but that puts some of the show’s more serious topics, such as payola and other deal-making, in perspective. Especially when the charming Alan Campbell convinces you that his Freed would never air any song or record he didn’t think merited the broadcasting.
The good news, for composer-lyricist Kupper at least, is the jukebox numbers are not “Rock and Roll Man’s” only grabbers. “Destiny,” the number that marks Freed’s visit to a downtown Cleveland record store, where he first hears the rhythm and blues he will name rock and roll, is as sharp and energizing as any song in the show. It also gives Brian Reeder the best chance to show off his choreography.
Kupper’s original tunes rate at different levels, but when he gets past the 21st century penchant for using songs to denote attitudes, he adds to the best parts of “Rock and Roll Man.” Even when a song is just OK, Whitney Bashor, as Freed’s first wife, or Campbell, who often has Freed crooning like Crosby, make it into a ballad or lullaby worth the listen.
In the long run, “Rock and Roll Man” falls into the category of a musical that is so efficient and melodramatic in telling its story, the effort seems gimmicky or lazy. But what saves it is what counted to Freed and the BCP stage: music that can’t help but excite.
In terms of overall entertainment, Myler’s production is a success, and Bob Ari and Richard Crandle carry the day.
In terms of “Rock and Roll Man,” as a totality, a trip back to the drawing board is constructively suggested. Especially when it comes to the book’s most gimmicky of gimmicks, having a sleeping Freed dreaming of a trial in which Hoover, as prosecutor, angles to railroad him to federal prison, while Little Richard is his defense attorney and passages from his life are evidence. Even with Crandle being a hoot as Little Richard, the gambit turns “Rock and Roll Man” into a cartoon and Hoover into a rabid tiger flexing governmental muscle.
Realizing Freed will never wake from this dream — because the heart attack that killed him at age 43 comes during it — does not add texture or gravitas. Dream devices are old-hat for starters, and this one isn’t handled well. Remember that trowel.
The dream, and the courtroom setting it demands, hurt “Rock and Roll Man” in two significant ways. It limits both primary stars, Campbell and Wendt, by keeping them trapped in a single dimension. Campbell takes advantage of chances he gets to show range and color Freed’s character a little, but he doesn’t get enough opportunity. Wendt is remarkable, but the writers have left Hoover little to do. Wendt’s native wit and show biz savvy make his Hoover more than a bogeyman and, therefore, wanted on stage.
The problem the physical construction of the courtroom causes is more grievous. “Rock and Roll Man” involves a lot of dance, dance that lets it soar. Much of that dance is done behind an elevated — and opaque — courtroom bench, which precludes the audience from seeing the dancers’ feet! It seems ludicrous to find that blunder in a theater.
The performers deserve better. Ari brings full humanity to his characters. Crandle exudes energy, and exuberance as Little Richard. Crackerjack dancer William Louis Bailey is superb as Frankie Lymon. John Dewey reprises his sensational Buddy Holly. Soara-Joye Ross shows what singing is as LaVern Baker. Melissa van der Schyff shows what acting is in several roles. Matthew Sean Morgan has the verve of Chuck Berry while James Scheider threatens the ceiling as Jerry Lee Lewis. Early Clover, A.J. Davis, Jerome Jackson, Brian Mathis, Heather Parcells, Michael Siktberg, Dr. Eric B. Turner, and Sasha Mermelstein also beam in this stellar cast.
Rock and Roll Man, Bucks Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope. Through Sunday, October 1. $45 to $85. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.