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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Rock And Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story .
Alan Freed, a Cleveland disc jockey, is the man credited with the apt phrase describing the sexually charged gyrations that these irresistible tunes inspired. Due to the influence of black musicians on the white culture, \the music was viewed with suspicion as a threat to the American way of life, mostly the strict segregation that prevailed in the South. Kids were out of control, sexualized by the provocative dancing and suggestive lyrics that intensified their already roiling teen-aged hormones. After communism, the commercial music industry was seen as the next threat to American morals, eventually investigated by Congress, preached against from the pulpit and persecuted by the FBI with catastrophic results for Freed. However, the music was just too powerful and that is what, thankfully, makes up mostof the show.
The Colonial production originated at Bucks County Playhousein Pennsylvania by the creative team of Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak and Rose Caiola. Along with Freed's penchant for original black music (he refused to play covers of white singers' interpretations) the authors include snippets of his life and flaws — alcohol and womanizing.
Riding the crest of rock and roll's frenzy, Freed broke color barriers and created the teen culture and music that spoke to them. He is even credited with sponsoring the first rock concert , The Moondog Coronation Ball, where 20,000 fans rioted trying to get into a 10,000 seat arena in Cleveland. The publicity sent Freed's reputation spinning into the stratosphere and 1010 WINS New York made history by promoting Freed's format. Film offers, concerts, TV shows followed in heady succession. The affable, bow-tied Freed dominated youth culture until – Payola! He and other disc jockeys were charged with accepting pay for play and the scandal exploded into Freed's successful life.
Freed's personal story is told in a series of flashbacks through the artifice of a fantasy dream trial. Played by Tony Award-nominated Alan Campbell, the charmingly sincere DJ has a good voice but unfortunately some of the songs which have been written for him are treacly and not of the caliber of the music Freed promoted. The hilarious Richard Crandle as Little Richard acts as his defense attorney against a humorless J.Edgar Hoover, played by the stolid George Wendt. Crandle needs more stage time as his impish antics dominate the action.
The dream sequence segues back to Freed's start as an obscure, bored DJ playing safe music for a white audience. But things liven up when Leo Mintz(Bob Ari) invites Freed to witness a phenomenon at hisstore, Record Rendezvous.Freed finds black and white kids playing rhythm and blues; the two men plan a new enterprise together with this burgeoning sound as their focus.
It's the revisitation of the original music which rolls out a cast of nineteen super-agile and multi-talented singer/dancers in twenty-nine roles that sets the Colonial audience to clapping and dancing. The delicious, slinky Valisia Lekae as LaVern Baker, Matt Morgan's Chuck Berry and Screaming Jay Hawkins, James Scheider's feet-stomping, piano grinding Jerry Lee Lewis are just a few of the memorable acts that come to life against the eye popping lighting design by Matthew Richards.
The quartet of male voices that duplicate such groups as The Cadillacs, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and The Platters, to name a few, recall the greatest pop hits that blared from transistor radios and the teenaged car culture of the period. Their costumes by Leon Dobkowski and dance moves choreographed by Brian Reeder mirror the coordination of these acts which continue to play oldies concerts today. This is the strength of the play. Otherwise it is another juke box show with too much melancholy modern music to connect the truly wonderful nostalgic trip to the pre-Baby Boomer/Baby Boomer musical emancipation.
The technical elements of the show are as exciting, if not more so, than the performances. Tim Mackabee's numerous sets are individually simple but when taking the show as a whole they are impressive. From a simple table that serves as Freed's studios in the latter parts of his broken career to the platforms that rotate in and out carrying furniture and actors as well as the set pieces that come down from the flies above the stage we instantly know where we are. Musical numbers take place downstage, on platforms many feet high and inserts that glide out from between the curtains. The projections and videos created by Christopher Ash and Kevan Loney are magical in their effects and variety. They're a show by themselves. Matthew Richards' lighting and Nathan Leigh's sound design are as dynamic as the sets and projections. They complement and enhance the energy of the total tech picture.
To control and hone all of this credit must be give to Brian Reeder. An ambitious work such as Rock and Roll Man needs a talented leader with a strong focus and sensitivity so that all the parts work together to create a completetheatrical experience.
Freed's story is the core of the play, but the musical numbers, even though some are truncated, carry the excitement of the show. The five piece band led by Dave Keyes revs up the evening's memories of the immediacy and energy of that time. Though a little long, and a better revue than it is a biographical account, it is an electric evening at the theatre.
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Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story; Book by Garry Kupper, Larry Marshak and Rose Caiola; Original music by Gary Kupper
Directed by Randal Myler; choreography by Brian Reeder; Music direction by Dave Keyes
Cast: Bob Ari (Leo, Morris Levy) William Louis Bailey (Dave Cooper, Frankie Lymon, Ensemble) Whitney Bashor (Betty, Alana, Ensemble) Alan Campbell (Alan Freed) Early Clover (Quartet, Ensemble) Richard Crandle (Little Richard) A.J. Davis (Quartet, Ensemble) John Dewey (Buddy Holly, Pat Boone, Ensemble) Janet Dickinson (Inga, Alan's Mother, Ensemble) Hayden Hoffman (Lance, Ensemble) Jerome Jackson (Quartet, Nate, Ensemble) Valisia Lekae (LaVern Baker, Ensemble) Brian Mathis (Judge, Bill Haley, Ensemble) Matthew S, Morgan (Chuck Berry, Jay Hawkins, Ensemble) Virginia Preston (Jackie, Ensemble) James Scheider (Jerry Lee Lewis, Dick Clark, Ensemble) Dr. Eric B. Turner (Quarter, Fats Domino, Ensemble) George Wendt (J. Edgar Hoover) Jared Zirilli (Danny of Danny and the Juniors, Ensemble)
Scenic Design: Tim Mackabee
Lighting Design: Matthew Richards
Costume Design: Leon Dobkowski
Sound Design: Nathan Leigh
Projections and Video designer: Christopher Ash
Co-Projections and Video designer: Kevan Loney
Wig, makeup and hair designer: J. Jared Janas
Stage Manager: Pamela Edington
Running Time: Two hours-thirty minutes; one intermission
Berkshire Theatre Group, Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA
From 6/27/19; closing 7/21/19/
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at July 7th performance
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