Broadway Review

Heart Failure: Huey Lewis Joins the Jukeboxers

“Oh my God! It’s cardboard,” exclaims one of the characters in The Heart of Rock and RollThe Heart of Rock and Roll, the latest jukebox musical to hit Broadway, now at the James Earl Jones after a run at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. He’s describing the packaging business the main character wants to succeed in, but he could be giving a summation of the plot and the show itself. Employing songs recorded by Huey Lewis and the News and a sitcom-level book by Jonathan A. Abrams (the story is credited to Abrams and Tyler Mitchell), this so-so musical rom-com feels like a retread of a retread. (One of the songs, “Power of Love” is already being used in another musical this season, Back to the Future.)

Heart of Rock and Roll
Corey Cott and McKenzie Kurtz in The Heart of Rock and Roll.
Credit: Matthew Murphy

Like Mamma Mia, Good Vibrations, and this season’s A Sign of the Times, Heart employs a credulity-stretching plot as a clothesline on which to pin the hits by Lewis and others, composed for his band. If the songs are strong enough and dynamically staged, this tried and true premise can work. Who cares about the story as long as the music is fun, right? Unfortunately, apart from Lewis’ signature smashes “Power of Love,” “If This Is It” and a few others, the songs sound remarkably similar to each other and Top 40 tunes by artists of the same era (late 80s-early 90s). The obligatory aerobics numbers (inspired by the jazzercise craze) bears more than a passing aural resemblance to “Footloose.” “Give Me the Keys” is too close to Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car” for comfort. There is one new song in the score, “Be Somebody” by Lewis, Johnny Colla, and Brian Usifer which is pleasant but not memorable or unique.

The Heart of Rock and Roll
The cast of The Heart of Rock and Roll.
Credit: Matthew Murphy

Gordon Greenberg’s direction and Lorin Latarro’s choreography are pretty routine, but there are a few exceptional moments. “I Want a New Drug” is cleverly staged with fantasy girls, flashily costumed by Jen Caprio, emerging from the bed of the hero as he imagines being a rock star. During “Give Me the Keys” the chorus mimes turning into a car to supply the leads with a dream date, using serving trays for wheels. One even pretends to be a roll-down window, which draws some laughs. There’s also a smart parodistic suburban fantasy sequence which turns into a ghoulishly funny Stepford-Wife nightmare.

As for the book, it’s strictly by-the-numbers. The time is the late 1980s. The place: a family-run cardboard box factory in Milwaukee and a sales convention in Chicago. Scrappy, non-conformist, hot-looking underdog Bobby (handsome and dynamic Corey Cott) strives to make good within the corporate world with his out-of-the-box thinking (get it?). Of course, he falls in love with the boss’s daughter Cassandra (a wonderfully quirky McKenzie Kurtz) who is being courted by a stuffy rival (Billy Harrigan Tighe doing his best with a cliched villain). The twist here is Bobby is also the front man for a band comprised of his best friends (F. Michael Haynie, John-Michael Lyles, Raymond J. Lee adding much-needed spice). And guess what? For saving the company, Bobby gets a huge promotion and at the same time, he’s offered a career-making record contract! Which will he choose? Will he get the girl and make his dreams come true? Will the company sell enough cardboard boxes to save the boss’s mortgage? No spoilers, but after a last-minute conflict, the resolution is hardly a surprise.

The Heart of Rock and Roll
Corey Cott in The Heart of Rock and Roll.
Credit: Matthew Murphy

Fortunately, the cast adds life and charm to this overly-familiar concoction. Cott who has headlined in Broadway productions of Gigi and Bandstand, is reliably virile and charismatic as Bobby. He’s entirely believable as a potential rock star, even though the script is not. Kurtz is his perfect foil, giving Cassandra a zany awkwardness which works well in their romantic scenes. She also displays impressive pipes, selling “It Hit Me Like a Hammer.” John Dossett provides sturdy support as the boss. The most welcome contributions are by Tamika Lawrence and Orville Mendoza in supporting roles. Lawrence wisely underplays Roz, Bobby’s human-resources supervisor and garners major guffaws as a result. This subtlety adds the impact of her intense musical numbers. Mendoza also does not push too hard in the comedy-relief role of a Swedish furniture magnate, allowing the character’s eccentricities to emerge from the dialogue and his gestures, rather than indicating them.

Set designer Derek McLane manages to make a cardboard-box factory and a hotel sales convention interesting with intense color choices as does costumer Caprio with her satirical period looks. John Shivers’ sound design makes the lyrics crystal clear and Usifer’s music supervision, arrangement and orchestrations serve the score well.

Heart does has heart in the sense that all involved perform at a professional level, but the show’s vital organ is a recycled, synthetic one.

The Heart of Rock and Roll: Opened April 22 for an open run. James Earl Jones Theater, 138 W. 48th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 30 mins. including intermission.

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