Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Heart of Rock and Roll (James Earl Jones Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The latest jukebox musical -- this one delving into the Huey Lewis and the News songbook -- is just as lightweight and unprofound as you might expect of such an enterprise. And yet, I found it an unabashedly fun and diverting entertainment, and its featherlight plot, such as it is, does keep you hooked. 

This is due, in large part, to the committed and dynamic turn of Corey Cott as a young man who has left his dreams of fronting a rock band behind to pursue an executive position in a Milwaukee cardboard packaging factory, so as not to be a failure as he believes his late father to have been. Needless to say, just as his cheeky machinations begin to pay off at a Chicago trade convention, the dormant music career at last shows signs of taking off. What’s a guy to do?

The book by Jonathan A. Abrams (from a story by Abrams and Tyler Mitchell) manages to build a decent amount of suspense about this improbable dilemma especially in the more action-packed second act. 

The excellent Gordon Greenberg directs at a snappy, no-nonsense pace.

Cott really makes you care about his character Bobby, sings powerfully, and all in all, tops his earlier good work in “Bandstand” though we'll overlook the misguided revival of “Gigi.” He handles the reflective moments as much as the rhythmic numbers with sincerity and assurance. There are also appealing performances by McKenzie Kurtz as the boss’s confidence-lacking daughter Cassandra; John Dossett as her widowed dad; Zoe Jensen and Josh Breckenridge as Cassandra’s friends; Orville Mendoza as the sauna loving magnate of an IKEA-like furniture company; and F. Michael Haynie, Raymond J. Lee, and John-Michael Lyles as Bobby’s old bandmates.

Especially winning are Tamika Lawrence as Bobby’s sassy friend and factory’s HR head, and Billy Harrigan Tighe as Cassandra’s smarmy ex-flame from Princeton (a “human PEZ dispenser, as someone calls him). Lawrence earns some of the biggest laughs of the evening, and Tighe -- though patently villainous -- shines in some impressive musical numbers like “Give Me the Keys” and “Stuck with You” which segues into an amusing dream ballet.

Throughout, Lorin Latarro’s vigorous choreography -- including a standout number involving bubble wrap, and a Richard Simmons-like second act workout number -- is a big plus, and the hard-working dancers impress at every turn.

The Lewis tunes are reasonably well integrated into the script, and sound very catchy as arranged and orchestrated by Music Supervisor Brian Usifer, and under the musical direction of Will Van Dyke. Along with following one’s dreams, love in the overarching theme and the show is peppered with reprises of “Do You Believe in Love?” and “The Power of Love.” 

The topline production team includes Derek McLane (sets), Jen Caprio (costumes), Japhy Weideman (lighting), John Shivers (sound), Nikiya Mathis (hair, wig, and makeup)

The show premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe back in 2018, but it was worth the effort to get it to Broadway.

(James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 West 48th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photo by Matthew Murphy: Corey Cott and McKenzie Kurtz

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