By EDWARD RUBIN
OK, so they weren’t exactly dancing in the aisles at the New World Stages the night that I attended The Rock & Roll Man. Forget that I said that. What the audience was doing to show their love for everything that was flashing before their eyes during the musical’s fast-paced, two-act and wonder-filled 2 hours and 20 minutes was hooting, hollering, whistling, laughing, clapping, snapping their fingers, gyrating in their seats and, most surprising of all, shedding nostalgic tears of joy – all of this while basking in the glorious glow of rock & roll.
One would think the target audience for this musical, which features the life and times of disc jockey and concert promoter Alan Freed (1923-1965), the first American who promoted large traveling with mixed-race acts that helped spread the importance of rock and roll music throughout North America and beyond, would be the grey-headed seniors like myself.
Of course, they would be dead wrong, for the night that I went to see The Rock & Roll Man the audience was packed with people of all colors and all ages. Wondering why there were so many young people, some apparently with their parents, I decided to take a small poll and chatted up the people sitting around me. Judging from the responses that I got from my interviewees, the general consensus was just like the rock group Danny & The Juniors sang in their 1958 hit song “Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay”:
Oh baby, rock and roll is here to stay.
It will never die.
It was meant to be that way, though I don’t know why.
I don’t care what people say, Rock and Roll is here to stay.
As the stage lights go up, we see Alan Freed (Constantine Maroulis) best known for his Broadway roles in The Wedding Singer (2006), Rock of Ages (2009) and Jekyll and Hyde (2012) in the turbulent throes of a nightmare. It is the final days of his life. The hook, a clever one at that, is having Freed’s longtime nemesis FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Ari) appear throughout the play both as a commentator as well acting as a prosecuting attorney. Alan Freed’s legacy is on trial and he hounds Freed to his very end. For Freed’s defense, Little Richard, beautifully channeled by Rodrick Covington – he almost steals the show in number after number – acts as Freed’s self-appointed defender.
While those who remember Alan Freed, the word payola – a charge he continually denied – always comes to mind. Payola aside, there is much more to Alan Freed’s story as the play’s three writers – Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak and Rose Caiola – in some 39 short vignettes tell us. The audience is taken on a bumpy rock & roll journey from Freed’s early beginnings as a DJ in Cleveland, which led to his role in breaking down racial barriers in U.S. pop culture’s traditionally segregated White and Black music, as well as allowing Black performers on radio, TV, film, and in concert halls.
Along with the two major people that fostered his career – Leo Mintz, founder of Record Rendezvous the Cleveland record store that started rock and roll, Morris Levy, the co-founder and owner of Roulette Records and founding partner of New York City’s Birdland – both compellingly inhabited by Joe Pantoliano (I see a Tony nomination for supporting actor in his future) – we learn of Freed’s affairs, his three marriages, two divorces, his four children, his last great concert held at the Brooklyn Paramount, which shattered all previous records for the theater, and his sad and long time coming alcoholic ending, where he died from uremia and cirrhosis on January 20, 1965 in Palm Springs, California penniless at the age of 43.
Story line aside, it is the musical’s talented performers who bring down the house while impersonating rock & roll greats, sometimes in solo, other times along with the entire cast. Included in this mind-blowing line up are Buddy Holly (Andy Christopher), Frankie Lyman (Jamonté), LaVern Baker (Valisia Lekae), Chuck Berry and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, both played to a tee by Matthew S. Morgan, and Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott), whose rendition of “Great Balls Of Fire” had everybody standing. Covering the various rock and roll groups like the Platters, the Cadillacs, and Drifters, as well as doing background singing throughout the musical for the other performers, are Early Clover, A.J. Davis, Jerome Jackson and Eric B. Turner.
The play ends with a rousing rendition of Chuck Berry’s 1957 hit single “Rock and Roll Music” led by Constantine Maroulis and the entire cast. All I saw leaving the theater were happy faces!
Cast: Constantine Maroulis (Alan Freed), Joe Pantoliano (Leo Mintz/Morris Levy), Bob Ari (J. Edgar Hoover) Rodrick Covington (Little Richard), Valisia Lekae (LaVern Baker), Jamonté (Frankie Lymon), Andy Christopher (Buddy Holly/Pat Boone), Autumn Guzzardi (Jackie), Anna Hertel (Alana), Matthew S. Morgan (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins/Chuck Berry), Dominique Scott (Jerry Lee Lewis/Dick Clark) and Eric B. Turner (Judge/Bo Diddley)
Ensemble: Andy Christopher, Natalie Kaye Clater, Lawrence Dandridge, AJ Davis, Autumn Guzzardi, Anna Hertel, Jamonté, Matthew S. Morgan, Dominique Scott and Eric B. Turner.
Technical: Scenic Design: Tim Mackabee; Costume Design: Leon Dobkowski; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards, Aja M. Jackson; Production Design: Christopher Ash; Sound Design: Ed Chapman; Hair/Wig & Makeup Design: Kelley Jordan; Music Supervisor & Arrangements: Gary Kupper & Dave Keyes; Dance Arrangements, Additional Orchestration, Synth Programming: Kenny Seymour; Music Director: Dave Keyes; Music Coordinator: John Miller; Stage Manager: Pamela Edington
Rock & Roll Man runs 2 hours and 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Directed by Randal Myler; Book by Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak and Rose Caiola; Original Music and Lyrics by Gary Kupper; Choreography: Stephanie Klemons
Rock & Roll Man officially opened on Wednesday, June 21, 2023 at the New World Stages at 340 W. 50th 45th Street in New York City.
Edward Rubin is a member of American Theatre Critics Association, NYC’s Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, International Association of Theatre Critics, International Association of Art Critics, Foreign Press Association, and PEN American Center.