The Heart of Rock & Roll: “What is this, the set for Hollywood Squares?”
In the old TV show, the contestant who could Name That Tune in the fewest notes won. Fans of Huey Lewis and the News could name “The Power of Love” by the first four, maybe the first two — and it would feel like meeting an old friend. They might sing along (“Don’t need money, don’t take fame/Don’t need no credit card to ride this train”), or just lose themselves and, as T.S. Eliot wrote, become “the music while the music lasts.”
When fans of Lewis see the Old Globe’s set for The Heart of Rock & Roll, based on his songbook, they may want to quote Vince Lombardi, great coach of the Green Bay Packers: “What the hell is going on here?”
Lewis’s music is uncluttered and always personal. Derek McLane’s set for the Old Globe could give clutter a new meaning. Boxes on the proscenium blaze with dazzling colors. Rows of red circles resemble giant bubble wrap. What is this, the set for Hollywood Squares? Lewis’ music invites you in. The Old Globe’s design shoves you away.
Jukebox musicals — tributes to this or that artist — come in various shapes and sizes. The Heart of Rock & Roll’s an extreme version of the music converted to a book. Jonathan A. Abrams and Tyler Mitchell have not only crammed the songs into a formulaic story, they have Broadway-ized the music, turning intimate exchanges into smiling show tunes, often with splashy production numbers. Like the set, rather than invite you in, they hurl you against the back wall.
The story: 35-year-old Bobby sings lead for the Loop, a Chicago rock band. After 10 years, they still can’t break from the dive bar circuit. But Bobby always wanted to “be someone,” be better than his father. The band’s latest rejection convinces him it's “Hip to be Square.” He leaves the group and gets a job — just like that! — with Stone, Inc., which specializes in “eco-friendly” cardboard boxes. In the long, long first act, he bonds with Cassandra, the CEO’s daughter; he blitzes up the corporate ladder and faces a dilemma: take the top job at Stone, or rejoin the band? The decision’s a mite more complicated than that — Cassandra’s also in the mix — but not much.
The story’s so chipper, the end is never in doubt. Like Bobby’s breathtaking rise up the corporate ladder, obstacles limp on and slump off, as if embarrassed by such a contrived plot. Cast members might feel the same. Most of the characters are as cardboard as the ever-present boxes on the set. Even the alleged villains, like Billy Harrigan Tighe’s Tucker, egomaniac extraordinaire, are cupcakes.
And why does Tucker sing “Stuck with You” to Cassandra? The song’s a lighthearted confession (“Yes it’s true, I’m so happy to be stuck with you.”). But she can’t stand him. Having the narcissistic jerk sing the song works for a while. It’s funny that he’s wrong. But the joke’s over long before the music — a playful tribute to enduring love — ends.
Surely “Workin for a Livin’” is a blue-collar tune (“Hey I’m not complainin’ cause I really need the work/Hittin up my buddy’s got me feelin like a jerk”). So who sings it? A man with a yellow hardhat and black lunch pail? Nope, the CEO of Stone, Inc.! John Dossett gallivants around the stage as if he's just won the lottery. The clash between singer and song explodes when he sings “I get a check on Friday, but it’s already spent.” Other than as a hard-sell suck-up to the show’s potential backers, the idiotic choice makes no sense.
These and other strange choices play like drawing board ideas that should have remained there. The notion sounds fine; the execution’s not. And in several instances, that makes for cognitive dissonance.
The performers do as told. Dossett has obvious fun as the loopiest CEO on the planet. Ditto Orville Mendoza’s Harrison Fjord, a flakey entrepreneur. Talented Matt Doyle’s Bobby sees silver linings where no clouds exist. Katie Rose Clarke’s Cassandra makes an astonishing leap from someone lacking interpersonal skills to a full-throated rock star.
Patrice Covington’s Roz is the only grounded character. She’s a tough-minded supervisor who, like Bobby, left a band and rues the move. Both character and actor have a partial redemption. After two and a half hours of Lewis’ watered-down music, she gets to cut loose with “The Power of Love.” The four notes chime, fans in the audience sit up straight, heads start to nod back and forth. Covington belts out the intro and sets hands to clapping. Here we are, finally! But no. The leads take center stage, Covington moves to the rear. She still sings, but Bobby, Cassandra, and the large cast, hopping and howling, drown her out.
The scene’s a microcosm of the show. Lewis’s voice gets shoved aside. Soft-edged Broadway “cover” renditions flat-line the heart of rock & roll.
People unfamiliar with the music may enjoy the piece if: the authors can streamline a clunky book (endless first act; second act too stuffed with most of the good songs; a double plot needing two resolutions, etc.); and they enjoy mindless entertainment. One thing is clear, The Heart of Rock & Roll is so relentlessly innocuous, the enterprise wears a great big commercial smile, with dollar signs for eyes.
The Heart of Rock & Roll, story by Tyler Mitchell and Jonathan A. Abrams, book by Abrams, based on the songs of Huey Lewis and the News.
Old Globe Theatre, Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Balboa Park.
Directed by Gordon Greenberg; cast: Patrice Covington, F. Michael Haynie, Katie Rose Clark, John Dossett, Patrice Covington, Matt Doyle, Paige Faure, Orville Mendoza, Lucas Papaelias, Zachary Noah Pizer, Christopher Ramirez, Billy Harrigan Tighe; scenic design, Derek McLane, costumes, Paloma Young, lighting, Howell Brinkley, Sound, John Shivers, David Patridge, music director, Matt Doebler, music supervision, arrangements, Brian Usifer, choreography, Lorin Latarro.
Playing through October 30; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.