Rock & Roll Man, the new jukebox/biographical musical at the New World Stages has a great deal going for it.
The story of legendary Rock & Roll impresario Alan Freed is told in a series of delicious period songs with a few original works (by Gary Kupper who also cowrote the libretto with Larry Marshak and Rose Caiola) thrown in.
The show is basically factual, although a tad exaggerated, and doesn’t shy away from Freed’s well-known issues such as his alcoholism and taking payola.
Best of all, the cast is led by Constantine Maroulis in a complicated, fine-tuned and, for him, subdued performance.
The story unfolds in 1965, Freed’s last year, as an imaginary court case dream: F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Ari, properly pompous) vs. Alan Freed. Freed, in this generally funny fantasy, is represented by Richard Wayne Penniman aka the iconic rock star Little Richard (Rodrick Covington, not quite as outrageous as he might have been) who lays out Freed’s defense in the form of songs and lots of histrionics.
Hoover had it in for Freed because of Freed’s liberal attitude toward race relations and his illegal graft activities later in his career. Freed was, indeed, one of the earlier proponents of integrating his performers and audiences in his concerts, films and TV appearances.
The trial allows us to see Freed’s life, beginning in Cleveland where he is a DJ on a stodgy radio program. He disobeys his station manager and starts playing the new, hot music, including the sexually suggestive “Sixty Minute Man” by Billy Ward and the Dominoes. He calls his program The Moon Dog House after a recording he used as a theme song. (Eventually, the real Moon Dog, a longtime New York City street icon, sued Freed for the unauthorized use of his music, and won.)
He meets Leo Mintz (Joe Barbara, eager and winning, subbing for Joe Pantoliano), the owner of a record shop called Record Rendezvous and a partnership born in heaven begins, Freed playing the newest recordings and Mintz selling them.
Radio fame leads to concert tours featuring such artists as Little Richard (“Ready Teddy”); The Drifters (“Money Honey”); LaVern Baker (“Jim Dandy” & ”Tweedle Dee”); Frankie Lymon (“Why Do Fools Fall in Love”); The Platters (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”); Buddy Holly (“Peggy Sue”); Chuck Berry (“Roll Over Beethoven” & “Maybelline,” which Freed fraudulently claimed to have co-written); and many other groups, all embodied by a talented, game cast, particularly agile at wig and costume changes (designed by Kelley Jordan and Leon Dobkowski, respectively)Rodrick Covington as Little Richard and the quintets (Matthew S. Morgan, Jamonté, Lawrence Dandridge and Eric B. Turner) in a scene from the new musical “Rock & Roll Man” at New World Stages (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Freed’s problems are multiplied by his association with the shady Morris Levy (also Barbara) whose underworld associations and greed lead to run-ins with the law.
As the “trial” progresses, Freed is supported by his loyal daughter, Alana (Anna Hertel, a gracious presence), the only loyal family member represented in Rock & Roll Man despite the fact that he was married three times.
The busy but colorful scenery is by Tim Mackabee and the informative projections by Christopher Ash.
Stephanie Klemons provides the apt, period choreography while music director Dave Keyes keeps the energetic band percolating.
Randal Myler’s direction makes sense of the disparate elements, dovetailing the wonderful songs with the plotline.
Rock & Roll Man (through September 1, 2023)
New World Stages/Stage 3, 340 West 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.newworldstages.com
Running time: two hours including one intermission