BTG Presents “Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story,” a New England Premiere at Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield
There are two parallel stories running thru “Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story.” The first, more frustrating one, is about the titular Cleveland D.J. who coined the term rock and roll, ran afoul of the law and died prematurely at the age of 43. The second glorious story and the reason to see the show is the extraordinary constellation of rhythm and blues and early rock performers who Mr. Freed promoted first on his radio shows in Cleveland, then New York and eventually in concerts across the country and feature films. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and many more make appearances in the show and there are over two dozen classic early rock and roll hits featured, several of which will get your pulse racing and have you clapping along ecstatically.
No sooner have you felt that high though then you are pulled back down to earth by questions about the lead character. The musical starts in 1964 in Palm Springs with Freed (energetically played by Tony nominee Alan Campbell) headed to court to face tax evasion charges. Freed was caught up in a payola scandal, bribes paid by the record companies for the D.J. to favor their records. We don’t get a “just the facts ma’am” rendering of his case. Instead what we get is his dream trial where he is being charged by the world, Little Richard is his defense attorney and the oddly cast J. Edgar Hoover, played by Emmy nominee George Wendt, whom I’ve certainly seen having more fun when he was playing Norm from the classic tv show “Cheers.” We don’t even hear the word “payola” until the end of the first act. I don’t envy the songwriter Gary Kupper who has written original songs for the show as they are placed alongside such immortals as “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Rock Around the Clock” but his second act number for Freed’s daughter Alana (Whitney Bashor) “Good Man” did reach me. I was never quite sure how I felt about Freed. What was he doing with a songwriting credit on “Maybelline?” Little Richard says at the show’s climax that he changed the world. Does the real Little Richard feel that way? That he was a trailblazer and inspired blacks and whites to listen to music together is certainly admirable but I still felt conflicted celebrating his appropriation and profiting off the black artist’s work. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in Cleveland!) inducted him into their first class. Now would be a good time to show us his tax returns.
Where the musical soars is with the performances by the multi-talented cast performing classic early rock and roll. Valisia Lekae is terrific as LaVern Baker slaying “Jim Dandy,” Matthew S. Morgan kicks the evening off with a great Cuck Berry and later puts a spell on you as Screaming Jay Hawkins. There is an invaluable quartet of Early Clover, A.J. Davis, Jerome Jackson and Dr. Eric B. Turner who make frequent and most welcome appearances as The Drifters, The Platters or The Teenagers. Most sensational of all though is Richard Crandle sweeping the audience up in his joyful enthusiasm easily as Little Richard until we all wanted to shout “Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!”
The physical production is exquisite. The courtroom set is askew, to let us know that justice is slightly off perhaps? Set design is by Tim Mackabee. There is a revolve center stage that keeps set pieces and scene changes flowing seamlessly helped out by a superb lighting design by Matthew Richards. There was a projection of Times Square with the old Bond Clothing Store sign which was quite beautiful. The costumes designed by Leon Dobkowski were stunning. Whether they were plaid cardigans for the kids at the record store or concert finery for Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino, they were beautiful, perfectly fit and full of character. Director Randle Myler keeps things moving throughout and you’re never more than a few minutes away from a classic song expertly played by Dave Keyes and his pit band. You may leave with more questions than you came in with but there’s good rocking tonight!