So for the millennials, now all old enough to vote, it’s Fantasy Time!
Come on in to major life decisions greased by rock ‘n’ roll, says the Old Globe Theatre, where a new musical titled The Heart of Rock & Rollis now in its world premiere.
The story here is the ultimate dream dilemma of early adulthood: being so good at everything that a choice must be made: An artist’s perilous ecstasy or the comfortable security of commerce. And, of course, what about love?
Heartoffers, as a guide through this well-trod wilderness, selections from the repertoire of one particular popular rock band.
Yep, another juke-box musical. (Or “catalogue” musical, as the creatives like to call it.) Except this one doesn’t tie itself down to the music from one fount, like Beatles or Carole King or the Four Seasons etc. Instead, the score is “inspired by the music of Huey Lewis and the News.” Inspired, not written.
Fair enough. Personally, I tend to get a kick out of juke-box musicals. I frequently have a “Oh, is thatwhere that comes from?” moment. And there’s a certain grim pleasure in watching book-writers grunt and strain to harness some random list of songs to serve a story.
I don’t even need to recognize a band’s sound. Before my recent session with Wikipedia, I wouldn’t have known Lewis et al from Chuckie and the Cheesenuts. That doesn’t affect my appreciation for the very professional quality of their work. In fact, the decent, carefully-molded solidarity of this score is one of its strengths. So what if the best song in the show is Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s All Right” from 1964? As offered up in the Huey fashion, it’s appropriate in message and even fresh in sound.
The real musical guiding hand here seems to be one Brian Usifer, credited with rounding up the songs, arranging and orchestrating them and supervising Matt Doebler and eight other excellent pit musicians in the so-right sound. Usifer even contributed to one of the new songs. As the niche called jukebox evolves, polished artists like Usifer will emerge to help enrich an otherwise forgettable era of musical shows.
Since somebody decided this fantasy had to be of the here and now, Usifer also had to wrench all these 1980s songs into an acceptable present. He’s been slightly more successful that his colleagues in other departments.
Jonathan A. Abrams wrote the book, assisted in some unspecified way by Tyler Mitchell. It does smell a bit mildewed, since the hero’s decision must be between singing lead in a promising band or accepting a top management role with a mid-sized cardboard box firm in the Midwest. Such choices nowadays are both more complicated and enabled by new technology. But remember, this is all rock ‘n’ roll fantasy.
Abrams has solved the problems (for the moment, at least) by including three or four slightly different endings, including one where the hero gets everything plus the girl too, hoping one will stick. No spoiler violations here; If this show has a future, work will continue on it during the Globe run. In fact, Abrams faces pretty much the same decisions as does his hero.
Director Gordon Greenberg will be there for Abrams regardless. Like Usifer, Greenberg is part of an emerging skill-set that knows how to proceed when they wheel in the jukebox. These characters as written all are standard issue, including the fantasy figures, so Greenberg’s approach is to plow right through the stereotypes with breezy energy that leaves plenty of room for individual actor charm. Lorin Latarro’s dances follow right along, with all hands dutifully choogling away in goofy glee.
So, who are these people? Matt Doyle borrows from decades of boy-next-door sparkle as the central kid. Katie Rose Clark is as dewy as her name but far from the self-doubt agony suggested in the script. The actor who’s impossible not to watch is Paige Faure as heroine’s best friend, a lithe, intense fireball aglow with commitment.
John Dossett as the big box boss, Orville Mendoza as a mercurial venture capitalist from Finland (name: Harrison Fjord!) and Lindsay Nicole Chambers, playing an agent shark with a heart, all turn out sweeter than necessary. Not so Billy Harrigan Tighe, obviously the yuppie villain because he’s preppy blonde, he’s pushy and he sings a cappella with three pliant wingmen.
The band in question, which so needs our hero back as lead singer, is Lucas Papaelias, hopelessly long-haired, on guitar; F. Michael Haynie, grumping for heavy metal but actually more base, on bass; and Zachary Noah Piser, the grounded drummer. The smell of old pizza and the sound of Mom’s peevish shouts down the basement stairway set the early scenes with grim authenticity.
Derek McLane provides a plausible frame for the action though his palette doesn’t quite match either the now or then. His cool minimalist instincts are a big help with the furniture. Paloma Young’s costumes face comparable choices with reasonable results in this atmosphere of shruggy authenticity. Nothing much to say about Howell Binkley’s ever-appropriate lighting except, “right on.”
No, I don’t think this is the future of the musical theatre, just as rock ‘n’ roll will not in fact live forever. But shows like this do hone the skills of those filling the seats while searching for the next step and the performing demands help improve the breed. I mean, just look at how hard everybody’s working and how appealing this all is.
Even without a coherent conclusion.
(Continues on the Old Globe main stage at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 21, 2018.)