“Rock & Roll Man,” a musical at New World Stages about Alan Freed, a radio disc jockey and concert promoter who championed early rock and roll, had already announced a September 1st closing date when the production invited me to take a look. I felt lucky to be able to catch some exciting performers rocking out some two dozen Golden Oldies, like Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti; Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls of Fire; Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven.
I think it counts as an irony that for all the familiarity of the music, it would be hard to dismiss “Rock & Roll Man” as yet another jukebox bio-musical for nostalgic boomers — because it’s not really a jukebox musical. And, even more ironically, I would have liked it more if it had been.
The show feels undermined by the dozen or so original songs added by co-writer and composer Gary Kupper, and by a script by Kupper, Larry Marshak and Rose Caiola that’s never better than clunky, and sometimes worse: The story is framed as a jury trial in the “court of public opinion,” with J Edgar Hoover as the prosecutor and Little Richard as the defense attorney.
It seems pointless, if not heartless, to spend a lot of time slamming a show that’s closing in a week. The producers invited me because I am a voter for several theater awards, presumably assuming that any award recognition the show receives will help them sell future productions. And there are some aspects of the show worthy of award consideration. Constantine Maroulis is the hardest working man in rock musicals, not quite James Brown, but deserving of our thanks for taking on the almost thankless role of Alan Freed, who was not a singer, so Maroulis only gets to sing Kupper’s songs. Standouts include Valisia LeKae, a Tony nominee who was so lovely as Diana Ross in “Motown the Musical,” who here portrays R&B singer LaVern Baker, bowling us over with her hits “Jim Dandy,” “Tweedle Dee” and “See See Rider”; Rodrick Covington as a raucous Little Richard and Jamonte as Frankie Lymon of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, who got Freed’s weekly ABC-TV rock and roll dance show cancelled when he danced with a white girl on air. The incident helps explain why Freed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its very first class – along with Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis – despite his fall from grace, involving his payments from record companies to play specific records, and his false claim of co-writing credits of hit singles. He died, broke, from alcoholism at the age of 43.
It’s unusual to base a jukebox musical on a story like this (even though, as I said, “Rock and Roll Man” isn’t really a jukebox musical), so it scores high for originality in a scoring system invented for jukebox musicals by fellow critic Louis Peitzman. I’d give it 7 out of 10 (even though the story could be told a lot better.)
The rest of Peitzman’s categories:
Preponderance of bops: There are many, although too many of the musical numbers are abbreviated, which is disappointing. So 7/10
Integration of music: The songs written for the show don’t feel necessary, but the 50s songs that Freed promoted are integrated into the plot — and the main selling point of the musical. So 5/10
Musical self-awareness: (Peitzman comments: “The worst jukebox musicals take themselves (and the artists they’re celebrating) way too seriously.”) There is humor in “Rock and Roll Man” – Little Richard comes out with a black and white twirled ice cream cone in front of a pushcart labeled “dairy queen.” But the celestial trial and the sentimental finale are cheesy enough for the show as a whole to earn a low score. 3/10
Audience self-awareness: (“Does the audience know they are seeing a live performance? The more they sing along, the lower this score is.”) Maroulis actually encourages us to sing along. 3/10.
Final score: 25/50, which makes sense, since I half liked it
When I attended “Rock and Roll Man” so late in its run, I wasn’t sure I’d be writing about it, which made me conscious of the difference in my attitude as a would-be regular theatergoer rather than a critic who has seen so many shows like this in the past.
So, curious, I took a poll: