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Broadway Reviews

The Heart of Rock and Roll

Theatre Review by Kimberly Ramírez - April 22, 2024

The Heart of Rock and Roll. Music by Huey Lewis and The News. Book by Jonathan A. Abrams. Music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Brian Usifer. Musical direction by Will Van Dyke. Directed by Gordon Greenberg. Choreographed by Lorin Latarro. Scenic Design by Derek McLane. Costume Design by Jen Caprio. Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman. Hair, wig, and makeup design by Nikiya Mathis.
Cast: Corey Cott, McKenzie Kurtz, Josh Breckenridge, F. Michael Haynie, Zoe Jensen, Tamika Lawrence, Raymond J. Lee, John-Michael Lyles, Orville Mendoza, Billy Harrington Tighe and John Dossett, Mike Baerga, Tommy Bracco, TyNia René Brandon, Olivia Cece, Taylor Marie Daniel, Autumn Guzzardi, Lindsay Joan, Ross Lekites, Robin Masella, Michael Olaribigbe, Kevin Pariseau, Robert Pendilla, Joe Moeller, Jennifer Noble, Fredric Rodriguez Odgaard, and Leah Read.
Theater: James Earl Jones Theatre

Corey Cott, McKenzie Kurtz and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Yet another musical has arrived on Broadway that's ready to transport audiences "Back in Time." The Heart of Rock and Roll is still beating after its recent run at San Diego's Old Globe. Now playing at the James Earl Jones Theatre, this lighthearted jukebox musical may indulge your 1980s nostalgia with its iconic Huey Lewis soundtrack–just don't expect a storyline involving him and The News.

It's 1987 and it's "Hip to be Square," so Bobby (Corey Cott) trades his electric guitar for an entry-level position at a cardboard box company. He attempts to climb the corporate ladder by ingratiating himself to bosses Stone (John Dossett) and daughter Cassandra (McKenzie Kurtz) as they grieve the late matriarch of this brink-of-bankruptcy family business. With a book by Jonathan A. Abrams, the scenario seems vaguely reminiscent of Kinky Boots, albeit not as well-crafted or coherent. The Heart of Rock and Roll formula feels phony and forced, but if you don't find fun in the familiar, you may discover some moving moments through its fringe characters.

Though the musical is not biographical, there are some significant parallels between Huey and Bobby. Both were 20-somethings when they started to play music with their bands, The News and The Loop, respectively, while holding on to similar day jobs and dreams. The ready-made score seems strained through Cott's exaggerated stylings, however. Bobby comes off like a subpar surrogate considering the pop legend's effortless and inimitable velvety vocals. Lewis's oeuvre sounds most vibrant in the mouths of marginal characters who sing supporting roles, resulting in some truly innovative interpretations that serve to preserve, diversify, and reinvent the music. For example, when background bandmate Eli (John-Michael Lyles) thrills with a quick solo, it is transcendently sweet, soulful, and smooth–but much too brief.

As the box company's human resources director, Roz, Tamika Lawrence busts through the surface with a bravura metatheatrical performance. Roz comes out to her colleagues while asserting her independence and transforming from methodical, middle-aged businessperson to rousing, rebellious rock star. Considering the hoots and hollers from the house in total support of the boundary-breaking Roz, the musical's otherwise conventional characters and libretto might have underestimated its audience. Though Roz plays a supporting role, she seems like a lead. When she replaces Bobby in The Loop, there is a clever gender-bending nod to another '80s legend that Lewis is recently famed to have once replaced.

Tommy Bracco and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Unfortunately, most other characters are shallow, one-dimensional stereotypes. Female lead Cassie appears perpetually flustered, reassured by bold boyfriend Bobby ("It's All Right"). Bobby is foiled by Cassie's rich and arrogant ex-boyfriend Tucker (Billy Harrigan Tighe). Weaker, ditzier best friend sidekicks Paige (Zoe Jensen) and Wyatt (John Breckenridge) trail the core team. Basement-dwelling bandmates Glenn (F. Michael Haynie) and JJ (Raymond J. Lee) complete The Loop. The predictable patriarch Stone retires after Bobby convinces an eccentric Finnish business mogul named Fjord (Orville Mendoza) to bail out the box company while he and Cassie take over the business–a deal struck in a hotel sauna, no less.

Neon archways and speaker-patterned prosceniums frame a rooftop convention hotel lobby slash commercial exhibition area where most of the action takes place (scenic design by Derek McLane with lighting by Japhy Weideman). This leaves a spacious dance floor for the energetic ensemble to bust gymnastic, aerial moves. Lorin Latarro's choreography is captivating, blending humor and athleticism in dynamic movements that serve as charismatic salutes to the '80s. A spot-on tribute to Richard Simmons showcases side-splitting physical feats during a corporate company workout, with aerobic exercisers clad in period-perfect stripes, spandex and legwarmers (costume design by Jen Caprio). A nightmarish pantomime portends what marriage might bring for Cassie and Tucker, with swaddled infants falling from the flies and Cassie driving one high heel into her ex's eye. Another sequence fashions dance props from the box company's packing tape and supplies, culminating in a percussive bubble wrap tap dance assembly line.

On the flip side, several numbers flop–for example, when a trio of girls emerge from a hole in the center of the bed when Bobby is left alone in a hotel room to reunite with his lost baby blue Fender Stratocaster. Wearing corresponding vinyl lingerie with halter-style fingerboards of frets up to their necks, the girls sway and sing backup for "I Want a New Drug" in a tastelessly bizarre sexualization of the guitar. Too frequently throughout the show, orchestrations and audio mixing sound a bit off, with acoustically unbalanced arrangements, overwrought harmonies, and voices competing and clashing with the instrumentation.

Hardcore fans can expect to hear a new song composed by Lewis, despite his Ménière's disease affecting pitch perception. Lewis collaborated with Johnny Colla and Brian Usifer to create the aspirational "Be Someone" especially for this production. Otherwise, The Heart of Rock and Roll's trite plot is contrived to connect 25 songs from Huey Lewis and The News. Still, we're left feeling empowered by the show's unintended star, Tamika Lawrence's Roz, who reminds us it's never too late to break free from conformity and repurpose your practicality in passionate pursuit of your dreams. And while the leading characters end up together in the clichéd conclusion (that's "The Power of Love"), their romantic partnership emerges through mutual career goals. It's hip to be square after all.