by Charles E. Gerber
The new musical, Rock & Roll Man, which celebrates the life of the trailblazing DJ Alan Freed opens on June 21, 2023 in open run at New World Stages, Stage 3 (340 West 50th Street).
Caiola Productions- Benedetti Productions- Maria Caiola- Colleen Freed- Jay & Cindy Gutterman, MTTM Theatrics- Jessica R. Jenen, Executive Producer with Book by Garry Kupper, Larry Marshak, and Rose Caiola – Original Music and Lyrics by Gary Kupper and Vintage Rock and Roll Elements Developed by Marshak Classic Music LLC and Gary Kupper Music
OK, what do we have here? Well, to begin with, a musical extravaganza. It consists of a series of serious samplings of several iconic songs (forgive the uncontrolled alliteration), of the mid to late fifties that helped to reshape the culture of this nation and soon after the world. It leads off with SH-BOOM, as well as READY TEDDY, LUCILLE,MAYBELLINE, GOOD GOLLY/ TUTTI FRUTTI, PEGGY SUE…..you get the idea, and interspersed, and importantly, not interrupted by original songs from Gary Kupper, one of the three authors of the book of the show, that help to reveal the saga of the man who, not merely coined the musical heading of “Rock and Roll” , but was instrumental without personally playing a note himself, but rather spinning the platters on his initial radio station in Cleveland, WJW, spreading the gospel of what was once conceived as “race music” and helped to disseminate its innate genius to the youth of this nation, and eventually, just about everyone on the planet. That man, as many of you may well know, and certainly would if you’re within spitting distance of my age, and I was born in ‘49, was Alan Freed.
A decade earlier before, Louis Jordan was intimating with records and “ Soundies” seen at movie theaters, but had yet to catch fire with the vast majority of Amercan listeners. Alan Freed changed that, and along with it, made more than a dent in infusing the richness of African American culture with the white society of the Baby Boomers just as the National Guard was nationalized by Dwight David Eisenhower in Little Rock Arkansas so that in the phrase of Louis Armstrong, “little negro children” could attend integrated public school in 1955, a year after Brown v. Board of Education.
So these are among the historically significant notes rendered in this show that’s made exceedingly palatable with an engaging, briskly performed script, and uniformly excellent acting along with brilliantly performed musical numbers sung and danced by an expert ensemble.
Constantine Maroulis, the Tony nominee for Best Actor in a Musical in” Rock Of Ages” a few years back, carries the show as Freed with an effortless authority of credible acting of a flawed hero and an extraordinary vocal range of dynamic intensity. He’s more than ably abetted by the nothing less than great, Joe Pantoliano in the dual roles of Freed’s two significant business partners, the benevolent Leo Mintz, and the seriously malevolent Morris Levy. These characters provide the vital necessary comic elements as well as lethal danger in the narrative of the story.
Danger with some unexpected comedy is well provided by Bob Ari as chiefly, J. Edgar Hoover who dogs the leading character much as the FBI Director did with such other notables as Charlie Chaplin, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy brothers, all the while keeping concealed his own predilections to the public, until such tales was fodder for Saturday Night Live and Broderick Crawford giving a winning turn as Hoover in the 70’s.
However, without question, it is the innumerable musical numbers that keep this show a riveting experience. Whether the narrative is furthered by Kupper’s new songs or the remarkable recreations of such greats as Little Richard: Roderick Covington, who makes a helluva Defense Counsel during Freed’s dream of his Trial in The Court of Public Opinion opposite the prosecution of Hoover, and the spot-on impersonations of Chuck Berry: Matthew S. Morgan, Jerry Lee Lewis: Dominque Scott, Lavern Baker :Valisia Lekae, Buddy Holly: Andy Christopher, and Bo Diddley: Eric B. Turner.
The choreography of Stephanie Klemons and its execution is lively to say the least, and the musical arrangements and direction of Kupper and Dave Keyes, conducting from a keyboard is first rate.
All of this is seamlessly guided by Randal Myler as director of the presentation with a sense of scope and enough attention to detail to allow the audience to empathize with the protagonist while registering the sweep of the phenomenon of what Freed described aptly as: “a River of Music which has absorbed many streams.”
The night my guest (who LOVED it) and I attended, not incidentally just before Juneteenth, was the night that Freed’s son was in the audience. I learned that he was invaluable in assisting in getting the permission to perform the classics of the genre that his father helped to mid-wife in its birth. How fitting to reflect its value in his presence.
I recommend Rock & Roll Man, this highly entertaining musical history excursion to anyone who cares about American music, and what the best of our culture can be when it embraces our wealth of diversity.