BWW Review: ROCK AND ROLL MAN: THE ALAN FREED STORY at Berkshire Theatre Group Puts A Spell On The Berkshires.
In the summer of 1954, in a small radio station in Cleveland, an unknown disc jockey heard the sound that would change America. And the rest is music history. ROCK AND ROLL MAN: THE ALAN FREED STORY is the new musical about the incredible rise and fall of Alan Freed, the man who coined the phrase rock and roll and brought its sound to the world. He discovered black artists-and got them record deals. He traveled the country-and got them heard from coast to coast and beyond. He spoke to the younger generation-and brought them to their feet. For the first time in history, Freed put black and white artists together on stage, performing for multi-racial audiences, an unprecedented move. By the dawn of the '60s, he was the biggest name in music-until scandal made him the biggest target in America. This high energy musical highlights the greatest rock and roll legends of all time, such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Lavern Baker, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Screamin' Jay, just to name a few. Featuring original songs by Gary Kupper and some of the biggest hits of a generation, including "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," "Tutti Frutti," "Great Balls of Fire," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Ain't That a Shame" and many more, Rock and Roll Man takes you behind the scenes and behind the music of one of the most influential-and controversial-figures in pop music history.
The show opens with the Chuck Berry classic, Roll Over Beethoven that gets the audience in the groove and clapping along to an energetic beat and rhythms that are woven throughout. We are quickly reminded, however, that this show is about the MAN. It is: "The Alan Freed Story" and if not for him, the now ubiquitous music might not have been.
Freed was a disc jockey in Ohio when black & white television was still a novelty and before FM radio was really a thing. He became internationally known for promoting the amalgamation of musical styles that crossed traditional lines and influenced artists including The Beatles. Through a well-crafted mix of original music by Gary Kupper; a book co-written by Kupper, Larry Marshak, and Rose Caiola; and carefully selected classic Rock and Roll standards we learn that as Director, Randal Myler says "Alan Freed was someone who loved music and broadcasting, yes, but who also had the ability to see the potential in the powerful music of the period."
Freed, played by Tony Award nominee (SUNSET BOULEVARD) Alan Campbell, was simply, as one of Kupper's original songs that interwoven with the classics throughout the show informs, "Playin' Music". Without regard to its origins, its message, or perhaps, most importantly, the skin color of those performing it. We see that, as he once told creative team member Larry Marshak, Freed believed that "any piece of music you like is a good piece of music". Unfortunately, that view was not shared by the power base dominant at the time.
Freed became a target of the leaders of the day including J. Edgar Hoover, played with cautious conservatism and pompous prowess by George Wendt. Threatened by the very notion that individuals might exercise free will, crossing prevailing societal norms and boundaries, Freed was labeled a "commie". He was subjected to overwhelming scrutiny, intervention, and pressures. All of which impacted his home life and likely influenced both a fondness for alcohol, and a series of bad choices.
The 47 songs presented cover a wide range of styles including ballads, doo-wop, rhythm & blues, and of course hard-core rock and roll. Some we know well and others, such as "Sixty Minute Man" that while not well known, represents a brilliant inclusion that helps us to understand the popularity of the emerging genre. Warning: it will be virtually impossible not to tap, clap, and even sing along. It is quite likely you will have some of the classic tunes popping into your head long after you've left the theatre. 14 songs were created for this show. Most are good and fit well with a few stand-outs that include "Rock and Roll Lullaby" sublimely sung by Alan Campbell and reprised by Campbell and Whitney Bashor who plays Freed's Daughter, Alana; "Destiny"; and "Good Man" in which
Bashor's singing is so delightful we wish the song would go on longer. Other vocal highlights include Valisa Lekae as Lavern Baker; William Louis Bailey as Frankie Lymon's performance of "Why Do Fools Fall In Love"; James Scheider as Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire"; and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" with laudable lead vocals by Dr. Eric B. Turner.
There is a lot to like packed into this production directed by Randal Myler. The action is well paced and well-staged. The use of turntables, tiering, and scrims are particularly effective elements of the scenic design by Tim Mackabee. The choreography by Brian Reeder, and costumes designed by Leon Dobkowski present a feast for the eyes. The entire 19-member cast delivers in acting, singing, and dancing. It would be an oversight not to call out the performance of Richard Crandle. His portrayal of Little Richard is brassy, sassy, and all kinds of Woooooooo. The audience is noticeably energized when Crandle is on stage and few wish he would "shet-up" as if that were even remotely possible.
ROCK AND ROLL MAN: THE ALAN FREED STORY with book by Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak, and Rose Caiola original music and lyrics by Gary Kupper directed by Randal Myler music direction by Dave Keyes choreography by Brian Reeder continues through July 21 at Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre 111 South Street in Pittsfield, MA. Visit www.berkshiretheatregroup.org/event/rock-and-roll-man-the-alan-freed-story/ for tickets and information.