Theater Review: THE HEART OF ROCK & ROLL (The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage)

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by Tony Frankel on September 19, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

AN EARNEST HEART THAT
SHAKES, THROBS, PALPITATES & FLATLINES

For all of its sincere heart and driving rock ‘n’ roll, this new jukebox musical inspired by Huey Lewis and the News’s upbeat pop tunes — either original (“I Wanna New Drug”; “The Power of Love”) or covers (Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s Alright”) — remains earthbound. Surprisingly pleasant and charming, but earthbound nonetheless. You would think that with all of the terrific tunes and boffo talent on board — Brian Usifer’s big, beefy, bright, hip, award-worthy arrangements; Lorin Latarro’s delightful, sometimes inspired dances; the amiable cast — The Heart of Rock & Roll would have Broadway contracts inked before closing date.

But the story of a guy who is forced to choose between a steady job at a cardboard factory and being a frontman for a next-best-thing garage-band, The Loop, is so slight and small that I can’t imagine this show making it anywhere else but high schools and a few regional theaters. It’s an enjoyable romp, and Jonathan A. Abrams’ book (with story by Abrams and Tyler Mitchell) has structure and tension, with a main character that has a crisis and turning point, but too many contrived characters come off as unbelievable, and we are simply not invested in the main love story.

At Stone Box Company in Milwaukee — where the employees are known as “Stoners” — head honcho Mr. Stone (harmlessly hip John Dossett) is preparing his company for the Great Lakes Shipping Convention at Chicago’s Navy Pier. (If you’re wondering how such an inane company was chosen for this show, remember it’s “Hip to Be Square.”) As such, Derek McLane’s set involves differently lit boxes, packing tubes and bubble wrap, the latter of which provides grist for a truly ingenious dance number: tapping on bubble wrap.

Bar-rocker Bobby (All-American, affable, adorable, indefatigable Matt Doyle) and his three ne’er-do-well bandmates JJ (Lucas Papaelias), Eli (Zachary Noah Piser), and Glenn (F. Michael Haynie) can’t seem to get a break, so Bobby decides to wheel-and-deal in Chicago so he can move up the corporate ladder (“Be Someone”), even at the risk of alienating his supervisor Roz (powerhouse Patrice Covington) and Stone’s daughter Cassie (Katie Rose Clarke, lovely, but not given much to work with).

Given her job came from nepotism, Cassie is eager to make an impression, but she is sidetracked by a secret love for Bobby and the reappearance of her old gang: bestie Paige (Paige Faure) — who’d oddly rather party than support her friend’s career — Paige’s hubby Wyatt (Christopher Ramirez), and Cassie’s ex Tucker (Billy Harrigan Tighe). When Tucker tells Cassie he wants her to complete his “vision board,” the audience groans; yet now that we intensely dislike this guy, he sings “World to Me.” Yes, incongruities abound. Which is one of the reasons we aren’t invested in the show’s outcome.

But this is musical-comedy-land. And the jukebox musical phenom is cranking out shows not dissimilar in structure to the heyday of 20s’ and 30s’ Broadway, except the songs used for today’s shows — instead of becoming pop hits as in yesteryear — are already pop hits. Abrams’ competent-but-silly book has all the earmarks of classic comedy, but the TV sitcom kind, not vaudeville and burlesque; his dialogue isn’t gut-busting funny, and it really needs to be.

Generations ago, a book was written just as an excuse to get to the next Gershwin or Porter tune. So the easiest way to write around that was formula. Abrams does that in spades, but his boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl scenario — sprinkled liberally with outlandish characters, silly jokes, and a quick wrap-up — isn’t special. The formula used here works as much as it gets in the way. Lewis’s songs are palatable and filled with unassailable sunniness, so the story should counter that. Instead, it’s awash in sophomoric humor (a Baltic business bigwig is named “Harrison Fjord”? Really?).

Yet I have to hand it to Abrams: I truly hated the books to the jukebox musicals Mamma Mia, Margaritaville, and the current bound-for-Broadway Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations. It’s intellectually insulting how dialogue is invented for song recognition — songs that are just dropped in piecemeal. Even as I did some eye-rolling, I tolerated Rock & Roll, and many of the songs do fit with the plot. But the entire context — and Gordon Greenberg’s serviceable direction — would most likely have to be scrapped if The Old Globe wants this fluff to have a future life on Broadway.

photos by Jim Cox (click images for larger version)

The Heart of Rock & Roll
The Old Globe
Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park
ends on October 21, 2018
for tickets, call 619.234-5623
or visit The Old Globe

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Thad A. October 15, 2018 at 11:18 am

The Heart of Rock & Roll was exactly as you said in your review, but I still enjoyed it. It’s sitcom-like and cardboard thin (yeah, that’s an obvious pun), but it looked good, the cast was fine, the music pleasant and decently integrated. I lament the standards of today’s pre-packaged consumer-grade musicals. When you cut the peg board to fit all the same round pegs, you end up with a boring pegboard. (Or you’d better be very, very good at cutting pegboards.)

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