Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Rock & Roll Man

Theatre Review by James Wilson - June 21, 2023

Constantine Maroulis
Photo by Joan Marcus
Although largely forgotten today, disc jockey and performance promoter Alan Freed is an important figure in popular music history. He is credited with standardizing the term "rock and roll," and he was instrumental in bringing Black artists to the attention of white listeners. His career was marked by one scandal after another, and he died broke and professionally shunned at age 43 in 1965. Rock & Roll Man, currently playing at New World Stages, is based on Freed's life, and it is a combination bio musical, jukebox show, and courtroom spectacle. If all of the elements rarely cohere, the show offers a useful reminder of Freed's legacy and justification for his place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

In its depiction of early rock music as a bridge between the racial divide, Rock & Roll Man recalls musicals such as Hairspray and Memphis. Additionally, the production's dramaturgical conceit, in which the hero defends his earthly actions in the afterlife, is reminiscent of Jelly's Last Jam. Those shows, however, are more consistent in their tone. Rock & Roll Man refuses to commit to a lane, and it veers wildly among camp, nostalgia, and social criticism.

The show begins with Freed (winningly performed by Constantine Maroulis wearing a distractingly bad wig) drinking himself to death. He is haunted by the memories of his glory days. As he slips into unconsciousness, Freed finds himself in a metaphysical courtroom in which the prosecutor is J. Edgar Hoover (a comically villainous Bob Ari) and his defense attorney is rock star Little Richard (a glittering and fabulous Roderick Covington). The Honorable Judge Mental (Eric B. Turner, who also does a spot-on impersonation of Bo Diddley) presides.

Hoover accuses Freed of imposing rock and roll on innocent teenagers and for being a fraud. He calls him "a modern day snake oil salesman who concocted this foul form of music solely for the purpose of self-promotion and illicit profit." In his defense, Freed depicts his early days as a DJ in Cleveland. There he meets record store owner Leo Mintz (Joe Pantoliano, adorable), whose shop offers a daily after-school dance party for Black and white youths. Freed cunningly gets some of the "race records" on the air, and he is an immediate sensation.

Soon, he is a nationally syndicated DJ in New York City, and he is promoting the performances of the giants in the industry, including LaVern Baker (Valisia LeKae, a Tony nominee for her performance as Diana Ross in Motown and proving here she's not a one-hit wonder), Buddy Holly (Andy Christopher, who delivers the Holly hiccups perfectly), Jerry Lee Lewis (an energetic Dominique Scott), and Chuck Berry (Matthew S. Morgan tearing up the stage). (Jamonté, Autumn Guzzardi, and Anna Hertel round out the hardworking ensemble.) Freed is accused of accepting payola, and his descent is swift and severe.

The joy of the show–the chance to hear classic rock and roll–is also the source of its greatest frustration. The book by Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak, and Rose Caiola breezes over the details and presents the historical figures in broad strokes, but its main function seems to offer opportunities to experience songs like "Jim Dandy," "Tutti Frutti," "Peggy Sue," "Yakety Yak," and "Great Balls of Fire." Under Dave Keyes' musical direction, there are more than two dozen songs, but unfortunately, most of them are presented as snippets. As directed by Randal Myler, the show speeds through the numbers (aided by energetic choreography by Stephanie Klemons) like a 1950s theme show that one might see on a cruise ship. The show isn't helped by a handful of songs with music and lyrics by Kupper.

Freed, as we can surmise from the way he ruffled the feathers of the establishment, was a scrappy, complicated man. The glossy and glossed over production (with scaffolded, efficient scenic design by Tim Mackabee, sparkling costumes by Leon Dobkowski, and concert-style lighting by Matthew Richards and Aja M. Jackson) doesn't do the man justice. Freed was by all accounts a pioneering rebel under his clean-cut demeanor, but this Rock & Roll Man is a real square.

Rock & Roll Man
Through September 1, 2023
New World Stages, Stage 3, 340 West 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: