Monday, July 8, 2019

Summer Musicals: Rock and Roll Man and The Light in the Piazza

The cast of Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story is a new jukebox musical, currently in a Berkshire Theatre Group production at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, about the DJ who coined the term “rock and roll” and helped to promote what had been called “race music” and kept off white radio stations. Freed was a tireless supporter of African American artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry; when their songs were covered by white-bread singers like Pat Boone, he refused to play the white versions, and he featured them prominently in the concerts he produced. But his career was shattered in the late fifties by payola and copyright scandals, and he died from the effects of alcoholism at the age of forty-three, in 1965. (You can see him in cameos in the mid-fifties movies Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock, as well as a few others; Tim McIntire played a character inspired by him, memorably, in the nifty 1978 Floyd Mutrux picture American Hot Wax.)

Rock and Roll Man is a tuneful nostalgia trip but as a musical it’s dim. The writers, Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak and Rose Caiola, set it at the end of Freed’s life and use a double frame to take us back through his career; that’s one frame too many. The show’s conceit is that his final moments of consciousness occur in a dream in which J. Edgar Hoover (George Wendt, in a half-hearted parody) prosecutes Freed (Alan Campbell) in the court of public opinion for corrupting the youth of America while Little Richard (Richard Crandle) defends him. It’s a silly idea, and since revue-sketch style doesn’t really suit the material, they keep dropping it, but it provides an excuse for the flashbacks the narrative requires. A range of characters show up, including Leo Mintz, the Akron, Ohio record-shop owner who gets Alan to listen to the discs he winds up spinning on WAKR and Morris Levy, the mobbed-up Birdland and Roulette Records owner (both played with some humor and freshness by Bob Ari); Freed’s three wives (Whitney Bashor, Virginia Preston and Janet Dickinson); and his daughter Alana (Bashor). But except for Leo and Morris they barely make an impression. Alana is the worst of these parts. She shows up every half-hour to call her dad to tell him she misses him or she’s proud of him or she’s worried about him. She does get a song – one of a handful written by Kupper that are seeded awkwardly among the familiar rock tunes. (Most of them come in the second act, when the musical needs songs to make dramatic points.) They’re all colorless and most of them are syrupy like Alana’s. It pops up just before Freed has to testify about payola, it’s all about what a good man he is, and it’s written in a contemporary country-rock style that’s jarringly unlike anything else in the show.

The bad writing might be forgivable if Freed were a dynamic character played by a charismatic actor. But Alan Campbell is bland and physically unimaginative, and the director, Randal Myler, doesn’t give him any help. More important, unlike Huey Calhoun, the white DJ played by Chad Kimball in the musical Memphis who falls head over heels in love with black music, Campbell’s Freed never conveys obsession or passion.

What little interest there is in Rock and Roll Man is provided by the members of the ensemble who impersonate famous rock performers of the 1950s, like Crandle, Matthew S. Morgan as Chuck Berry, James Scheider as Jerry Lee Lewis and especially Valisia Lekae as LaVern Baker, William Louis Bailey as Frankie Lymon and John Dewey as Buddy Holly. (Brian Mathis doesn’t really get Bill Haley, and Morgan is less successful as Screaming Jay Hawkins, mostly because he’s thrown into a ridiculous Halloween costume for his rendition of “I Put a Spell on You,” including something just above his upper lip that looks like an outsize plastic staple.) The men who walk away with the musical, however, are Early Clover, A.J. Davis, Jerome Jackson and Dr. Eric B. Turner, who stand in for The Platters, Lymon’s back-up singers The Teenagers, and various other unnamed close-harmony quartets.

Aside from that thing beneath Jay Hawkins’ nose, the most uncomfortable visual in Rock and Roll Man is inadvertently provided by Bob Ari every time Leo takes a record out of its sleeve to play a tune for Freed. Someone needs to tell Ari that you have to hold vinyl delicately by the edge so you don’t get fingerprints on it and blur the sound.

Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen in The Light In The Piazza. (Photo: Dewynters London)

The Light in the Piazza opened at Lincoln Center in 2004, but the production that played briefly at London’s cavernous Southbank Centre only last month marked its London debut. Daniel Evans is listed as director, but any staging he contributed is perfunctory. The forty or so musicians from the Orchestra of Opera North, under Kimberly Grigsby’s direction, literally tower over the pretty but diminutive Robert Jones set, and ten ensemble members, in addition to the eight principals, dot it during the various exterior sequences to give the impression of the Florentine cityscape. If you were lucky enough to see Bartlett Sher’s Broadway production a decade and a half ago, you may find yourself superimposing scenes from it onto this version in your head – especially during the title number. Clara Johnson, the romantic heroine fated, from an accident with a pony at twelve, to remain childlike at twenty-six, sings it to her mother Margaret at the top of the second act in a fervent effort to articulate her gift for feeling, which Margaret has not valued sufficiently. As Sher framed it, the whole stage came alive at that moment, Michael Yeargan’s set and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting combining with the lyrical splendor of the ballad and the heartbreaking sweetness of Kelli O’Hara’s delivery to break open the treasure chest of Clara’s romantic aspirations. In Evans’s production Dove Cameron simply stands and sings the song while the audience, like RenĂ©e Fleming as Margaret, listens.

But there are worse offenses in the theatre than producing a great modern-day musical with a fine cast that can do justice to both its musical demands and its dramatic ones, even if there isn’t much to be said for most of the visual components. (Costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel is the one member of the production team who really rises to the occasion, with summery pastel clothes for both the women and the men that return us to 1960. That’s the year that saw the publication of the source material, Elizabeth Spencer’s lovely novella.) The show, with a skillful book by Craig Lucas and a lush, soaring score – both music and lyrics – by Adam Guettel, is a most unconventional romantic musical. On a trip to Italy with her mother, Clara, an American from North Carolina, falls in love with a twenty-year-old Florentine named Fabrizio Naccarelli (Rob Houchen) and he with her. Margaret, hyperconscious of her daughter’s limitations, tries to block the romance, even though Fabrizio’s family supports it. But eventually Margaret begins to believe in it too and to advocate for the possibility of her daughter’s happiness, despite the psychological problems the Naccarellis know nothing of, and her reversion to the temperament of a panicked child when she loses her footing. Luck is on their side. When Franca (Celinde Schoenmaker), unhappily married to Fabrizio’s womanizing brother Giuseppe (Liam Tamne), flirts with Fabrizio to make her husband jealous, Clara explodes but the Naccarellis don’t register it as a meltdown; even Franca sees it as the righteous behavior of a woman who knows how to fight for the man she loves. Clara strikes them as old-fashioned, not like a typical American girl at all. And their desire to fold her into their family offers the kind of protection she wouldn’t get in America. “I played a tricky game in a foreign country,” Margaret confides to us at the top of the play, and her efforts to seal the match do indeed become complicated.

What makes The Light in the Piazza extraordinary besides Guettel’s magnificent score – its warmth and melodic richness and heart recalling the best work of his grandfather, Richard Rodgers – is the way in which it employs Clara’s story as an embodiment of the leap of faith we all take when we fall in love, faith that despite the odds this will be one love that won’t shatter apart or blow up or wither on the vine. “No one knows / We only guess / Just a leap for happiness,” Margaret and Fabrizio’s father (Alex Jennings) sing in the second-act duet “Let’s Walk.” Both have had less than perfect marriages. Signor Naccarelli, like his son Giuseppe, has a roving eye, and Margaret’s husband Roy (Malcolm Sinclair) – whom we see only during two long-distance phone calls, when he commands her to put an end to the affair – apparently stopped loving her as soon as they wed. (Her first-act solo, “Dividing Day,” chronicles her disenchantment.) Margaret’s struggle is to conquer her own cynicism about love: “But what do I know / Of the road to be taken / For happiness?” she sings (again in “Let’s Walk”). The final song of the evening, her second solo, “Fable,” is about that conquest: in it she swings movingly from “Love’s a fake, love’s a fable” to “Love if you can, then, my Clara / Love if you can and be loved / May it last forever!” Blinded for so long not only by her fears for her daughter but also by her own romantic disappointment, she finally sees what her daughter has seen all along: the light in the piazza. Those five words are the last ones Margaret sings, as Clara joins Fabrizio at the altar.

When I heard Fleming sing “Fable” on her recent album On Broadway, it struck me that Margaret was an ideal role for her, and though she doesn’t have the distinctive velvety melancholy of the original star, Victoria Clark, she gives a marvelous performance, dramatically as well as vocally. It is, of course, not news that Fleming is a superlative actress as well as one of the world’s great singers. Her farewell appearance at the Met, as the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier, was as great as Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s interpretation, and she brings some of that high-comic quality – the mix of valiancy and gravitas – to Margaret. Cameron performs “The Light in the Piazza” and Clara’s other songs very sweetly, and her acting is touching; she can’t be blamed for the fact that Kelli O’Hara owns that part, that probably no one will ever bring so much complexity to the character’s fragility. Jennings, one of my favorite actors, balances Naccarelli’s sexual confidence with a fondness for his younger son that I don’t remember being quite as touching in the Broadway production, good as Mark Harelik and Matthew Morrison were in the father-son roles. Jennings, who played Prince Charles in The Queen and the Duke of Windsor on the first two seasons of The Crown and Alan Bennett in Untold Stories on stage and The Lady in the Van on stage and screen – and whom PBS mavens may have seen recently in a deeply unsettling performance on the third season of the cold-case mystery series Unforgotten – seems to be able to play anything and everything, with an economy of means that is truly dazzling. At the beginning of “Let’s Walk,” he tells us more about the character by the way he ties a sweater around his shoulders before setting out for a passeggiata (or promenade) with Margaret than most actors suggest in an entire scene. I’d never heard of Rob Houchen before this, but I suspect we all will. He handles the desperate amorousness of “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” and the full-throated joyousness of “Passeggiata” and the trills in “Love to Me” – all of which require opera training – with something like Morrison’s courageous, working-without-a-net commitment. And he really seems like a twenty-year-old, the perfect match for Clara, a child in a woman’s body who, to everyone’s surprise including ours, turns out to be blessed with a gift for love that transcends both age and mental capacity.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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