Reviews

Rock & Roll Man ***

By: Samuel L. Leiter

June 21, 2023: It was the 1950s. Ike was president, Hoover headed the FBI, and, horror of horrors, rock and roll was sweeping the nation. It was a phenomenon many considered (like comic books) a threat to the very foundations of American civilization, responsible for everything from juvenile delinquency, drugs, and sex, to the spread of communism. (This was the McCarthy era, after all.) In 1955 the soundtrack of Blackboard Jungle, a path-breaking movie about tough Brooklyn high schoolers,featured Bill Haley and the Comets pounding out the 1954 hit, “Rock around the Clock.” A year later, the nation’s teens went bonkers (and the censors freaked) when a young rocker named Elvis Presley tossed his hips around on Ed Sullivan’s TV show.

The cast of “Rock & Roll Man”.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

June 21, 2023: It was the 1950s. Ike was president, Hoover headed the FBI, and, horror of horrors, rock and roll was sweeping the nation. It was a phenomenon many considered (like comic books) a threat to the very foundations of American civilization, responsible for everything from juvenile delinquency, drugs, and sex, to the spread of communism. (This was the McCarthy era, after all.) In 1955 the soundtrack of Blackboard Jungle, a path-breaking movie about tough Brooklyn high schoolers,featured Bill Haley and the Comets pounding out the 1954 hit, “Rock around the Clock.” A year later, the nation’s teens went bonkers (and the censors freaked) when a young rocker named Elvis Presley tossed his hips around on Ed Sullivan’s TV show.

In 1955, Alan Freed, a radio DJ from Cleveland, began broadcasting on New York’s WINS, challenging conventional music tastes by playing the hottest new examples of rock and roll, especially those from African-American artists. A new Off-Broadway jukebox musical about Freed, Rock & Roll Man claims that Freed created the term rock and roll; this is disputable but it’s undeniable that Freed probably did more than anyone to popularize its usage.

Constantine Maroulis as Alan Freed and Joe Pantoliano as Leo Mintz.

Soon, he began hosting massively popular rock and roll concerts, controversially featuring Black artists as well as white, at the Brooklyn Paramount and in other cities. The mingling of the races at these shows—onstage and off—was condemned by racist forces, who called the songs “jungle music,” and played a role in Freed’s demise, although he was later praised by some—including Rosa Parks—for his contributions to racial progress.

Those were shows that—as recent postings on Facebook’s “Straight Outta Brooklyn” page reveal—still live in the hearts and minds of geriatrics who once danced in the aisles of the Paramount (and the nearby Fox) to the rhythms of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Last, and most definitely least, Sam Leiter was listed in the Tilden High School ’58 yearbook as “Best Dancer,” an achievement, he admits, impossible without the inspiration of songs like “Tutti Frutti.” 

Valisa LeKae as LaVern Baker and the quintets (l-r) AJ Davis, Jamonté, Lawrence Dandridge and Eric B Turner.

But you needn’t be a prospect for assisted living or a nursing home to still get a kick (even if you can’t kick anything yourself) out of the golden oldies of the 50s on tap in the above-mentioned jukebox musical about Freed’s meteoric rise and tragic fall. The show, now at New World Stages, originated in 2017 at the Bucks County Playhouse (with George Wendt of “Cheers” as Hoover), and covers around 30 classics (some sadly truncated), supplemented by new songs; the latter are respectable, if in no way comparable to the “goldies”—by Gary Kupper. But even a talented troupe of performers, led by former American Idol aspirant Constantine Maroulis (Rock of Ages) as Freed, and “Sopranos” regular Joe Pantoliano as both Cleveland record store proprietor Leo Mintz and mobbed up New Jersey manager Morris Levy, can’t transmute their cardboard characters to flesh and blood in the uninspired, formulaic book by Kupper, Larry Marshak, and Rose Caiola.

Guessing by the enthusiastic reception of the preview crowd when I attended, the songs alone may be enough to pull in the “hepcats and kitties,” as Freed would have called them, for an extended run. The libretto’s hook is to begin with Freed’s 1958 Holiday Extravaganza at the Paramount with the doo-wop group the Chords singing “Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)” as a setup for a scene set in 1965 Palm Springs, CA, where the alcoholic DJ hears on TV that J. Edgar Hoover is going to have his legacy prosecuted in “the court of public opinion.” 

Rodrick Covington as Little Richard, and the quintets (l-r) Matthew S. Morgan, Jamonté, Lawrence Dandridge, AJDavis and  Eric B Turner.

Freed sings about the need to get back on the air (“Playin’ Music”) before drifting into dreamland. There he sees himself on trial for destroying the American way of life, with a flamboyant rocker Little Richard (Rodrick Covington), in glitzy skintight silver lamé, as his defense attorney opposite the aggressive prosecution represented by the fanatical Hoover (Bob Ari, who also plays multiple other roles).

The fantastical trial, called “The World versus Alan Freed,” which pops up every now and then, serves as the thread linking together the highlights of Freed’s story, beginning when he discovers the potential impact of rock and roll at Cleveland’s Record Rendezvous record emporium. Its owner is radio sponsor Leo Mintz, whose financial support helps Freed make broadcasting history. 

The tale, culminating in Freed’s being accused of taking kickbacks to play particular records (the “payola” scandal) and his death in 1969 at only 43, is punctuated by musical numbers representing those that drove kids wild and frightened their parents. This would be satirized only a few years later in the Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie in a song called “Kids,” with lyrics like, “Kids! With their awful clothes and their rock an’ roll!/Why can’t they dance like we did/What’s wrong with Sammy Kaye?/What’s the matter with kids today?”

Bob Ari as J. Edgar Hoover.

Over the course of the show’s two acts, we rock along to such standards as “Sixty-Minute Man,” by the Dominoes (unidentified); “Money Honey” by the Drifters; “Sincerely,” by the Moonglows; “Peggy Sue,” by Buddy Holly (Andy Christopher); “Hey, Bo Diddley,” by Bo Diddley (Eric B. Turner); “Yakety Yak,” by the Coasters; “Maybelline,” by Chuck Berry (Matthew S. Morgan); “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” by Frankie Lymon (Jamonté) and the Teenagers; and, among many others, “Great Balls of Fire,” by Jerry Lee Lewis, for which Dominique Scott does a bang up job banging the ivories and tossing his wig’s blond locks. 

The vast majority of songs are from the breathless, upbeat category, only “Sincerely” and the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” representing the host of great R&R ballads of the period, leaving out such earworms, for example, as “Earth Angel.” Also, since male stars dominated the genre, only one female star—LaVern Baker (the red-hot Valisia LeKae), offering “Jim Dandy,” “Tweedle Dee,” and “See See Rider”—represents the distaff side (sorry Etta James, Ruth Brown, Connie Francis, et al.). And while plenty of male groups appear, not a single girl group of the 50s (they came into their own in the 60s) gets the spotlight; fans of the Shirelles and the Chantels, among others, will have to suck up their disappointment.

Constantine Maroulis as Alan Freed and the cast of Rock & Roll Man

Randal Myler’s direction moves the multi-scened show along swiftly but without any notably imaginative touches, while Stephanie Klemons’s choreography gets the job done with verve but, despite the promise inherent in 50s Lindy dancing, with little out of the ordinary. Only rarely does a dance number capture a sense of period authenticity; at the same time, one moment even has someone doing the Twist several years before that dance existed. 

Tim Mackabee’s two-tiered set, with the musicians on an upper level, allows for swift changes, supplemented by Christopher Ash’s projections, and the lighting of Matthew Richards and Aja M. Jackson, but the visuals too often border on the cheesy. Leon Dobkowski’s costumes fail to wow, either in terms of period accuracy or noteworthy satire, as in the gauche jackets worn by Freed. One wonders as well why the ensemble members who play the various singing groups wear the same shiny black and white suit jackets throughout, no attempt being made to differentiate one group from another. 

Constantine Maroulis as Alan Freed.

As Alan Freed, Constantine Maroulis has either shorn his trademark shoulder-length hair or tucked it up inside a phony-looking wavy black wig. A talented singer, and decent enough actor, he carries off the biggest company number, “King of the World,” with energetic aplomb, but we should remember that Freed himself was not a singer. On the other hand, a musical about him is forced to make him one. His forte was his distinctive speaking style, and Maroulis, for all his vocal talent, lacks Freed’s microphone magic.

Joe Pantoliano—who gets a round of applause on his entrance, although I didn’t recognize him at first—gives his all, at least physically, in two sharply differentiated roles. Leo Mintz is an aging, bad joke-telling, Cleveland Jew, bald with silly white tufts, like Mercury’s wings, over his ears. They make him—in his glasses, V-neck sweater, and bowtie—look like an eccentric professor. His speech, which sounds more Garden than Buckeye State, is at least ideal for his other role, Morris Levy, a tough guy night club owner from Newark, in a double-breasted suit and a full pate of hair. His singing is limited, but he gets enough to show he can carry a tune.

Alan Freed is an iconic figure in the history of rock and roll. His story has been told before in several movies, none of them successful. One can understand the dream to attempt a jukebox musical integrating that story with the music he helped popularize; once again, though, the result hasn’t realized the dream. To which we can only say, like the show’s Fats Domino song, “Ain’t That a Shame.”

Rock & Roll Man ***
New World Stages
340 W. 50th Street, NYC
Through September 3, 2023
Photography: Joan Marcus