Huey Lewis and the News Jukebox Musical is Easy to Like, Harder to Love : ‘The Heart of Rock And Roll’ Review

When a character in the new musical “The Heart of Rock and Roll” tries to convince his ex to leave her job at a factory that makes shipping materials, he is stunned “Oh, my god

Published Time: 23.04.2024 - 05:31:25 Modified Time: 23.04.2024 - 05:31:25

When a character in the new musical “The Heart of Rock and Roll” tries to convince his ex to leave her job at a factory that makes shipping materials, he is stunned: “Oh, my god. It’s cardboard!”

But there can be real appeal to the humblest of materials — and the same can be said of this unpretentious, silly and, in the end, rather fun show. For all the familiar jukebox musical templates of thin characters, unsurprising plot developments and oldie pop/rock songs shoehorned into the narrative, there’s something to be said for simple packaging that knows what it is and does it well.

The show, which premiered in 2018 at The Old Globe, features Jonathan A. Abrams’ original script (story by Tyler Mitchell and Abrams), which is “inspired by the songs of Huey Lewis and the News,” the mainstream ‘80s group known for hook-filled pop/rock songs sung by its raspy-voiced, likable-guy lead singer.

But many of the News’ infectious, throbbing tunes — penned by various writers including Lewis — sort of merge into a continuous, corrugated whole. That makes it a challenge to craft a show that doesn’t sound like it’s on a loop, at least for dramatic purposes.

But here the musical’s clever creators, led by director Gordon Greenberg and choreographer Lorin Latarro, decide to just go for the pleasant middle which neither offends nor inspires, just entertains. It also reflects the broad, easy-going appeal of the music — at least for certain generations — which makes this show’s future promising, if not in this Broadway run then certainly for the road.

Derek McLane’s colorful set design and Jen Caprio’s witty costumes (love the cardboard skirt) echoes the late ‘80s, and signal mindless escapism is the key.

The musical rom-com’s nutty exuberance is also reminiscent of another show: “Hairspray.” Here, too, are oddball jokes, loopy characters and winking period references (Sam Goody’s, Trader Vics, boom boxes and the Walkman — “Why not a Walkwoman?” snaps one female visionary.)

Just don’t look at the plot too deeply as it follows Bobby (Cory Cott), a guy who gave up his rock and roll dream as the lead singer for the longtime-struggling The Loops for a more secure job at a Milwaukee factory where he hopes to impress the boss (John Dossett) and the boss’s daughter Cassandra (McKenzie Kurtz, who gives this ingenue surprising quirks and comic chops).

But he also doesn’t want to let down his old bandmates (F. Michael Haynie, Raymond J. Lee and Joh -

n-Michael Lyles) when there’s a chance to get an unexpected record deal.

But there are complications, natch, with Bobby’s wooing of Fjord (Orville Mendoza), the Swedish furniture magnate, for a big contract while simultaneously competing with Cassandra’s ex-fiancee and Gordon Gekko wannabe Tucker (Billy Harrington Tighe, a triple-threat performer, as well as a comic virtuoso in every scene and song.)

Humor and brightness is what fuels this engine whose musical repertoire is not infinitely varied. So “Hip to Be Square” is sung by the box factory workers with dancers doing tap on bubble wrap. “Stuck with You” becomes a hilarious fantasy of domestic doom. “I Want a New Drug” turns into Bobby’s love song to a seductive electric guitar.

Throw in a scene in a sauna and another in an aerobics studio led by a Richard Simmons-type (Tommy Bracco) and you have enough diversions to keep you from thinking too much about the story.

Adding sly comic asides is a very funny Tamika Lawrence as Bobby’s HR ally. She gets the biggest laughs with the subtlest of takes, and slays the show’s wind-up song, “The Power of Love” (a tune that also fuels Broadway’s “Back to the Future”).

“The Heart of Rock and Roll” only betrays itself when it dips its toe too deeply into the pool of seriousness with an overwrought 11 o’clock number (“The Only One”). Until then, Bobby is an appealing enough go-getter, but sudden father issues takes the show down a different road.

Cott, who was impressive as the lead in “Bandstand,” sings the hell out of the songs. But his striking good looks, not to mention his well-displayed biceps and abs, makes him perhaps too much of a slick outsider to be thoroughly credible in Huey’s working-for-a-living world.

Still, since the show keeps its ambitions in check with its sensibly-scaled production and low-stakes book, it doesn’t really matter that it thinks inside the box. After all, cardboard has its uses.

‘The Heart of Rock And Roll’ Review: Huey Lewis and the News Jukebox Musical is Easy to Like, Harder to Love

James Earl Jones Theater; 1084 seats; top ticket $288; Opened April 22, 2024; Reviewed April 18; Running time: 2 HOURS 30 MIN.

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