‘This is Rock and Roll! The Alan Freed Story” is a slice of pop music history focusing on Alan Freed, the disc jockey and promoter credited with giving rock ’n’ roll its name.
The show, written by David Vienna and directed by Kevin Harris, is a reminder of the days when the evolving genre was called such things as “lustful music that inspires people to fornicate” and “the devil’s music, with hypnotic voodoo-like rhythms.” A terrific live band, singers and dancers, and projected stills recall the 1950s and early ’60s era.
Chad Stevens is good as he plays Freed as a cocky, egotistical, hard-drinking disc jockey. Freed considers himself above taking orders, and when he is reprimanded by his bosses for playing rhythm and blues (“race music”), he plays it even more.
He attracts unruly young crowds to the live concerts he promotes and defies both a scandalized public and law enforcement. His wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, eventually known as taking “payola,” leads to investigation by a Senate subcommittee.
But the popularity of the music grows as it fuses R&B with rockabilly, jazz and pop, and he decides he needs a name for it. He recalls a line in an R&B song, “60 Minute Man,” that goes, “I can rock and roll all night long,” and appropriates it.
Then he decides he needs a signature singer for the new music, and he finds Elvis. Elvis hit the charts across the board — R&B, country western and pop — and the music flowed into the mainstream. Travis Nefores makes the Elvis moves, singing “Hound Dog.”
As television began to eclipse radio, Freed had a new nemesis, the popular Dick Clark, smooth and as squeaky clean as Freed was sleazy. Bill Kirkpatrick is eerily familiar as Clark.
As Freed’s story unfolds, the members of the small cast of actors and singers assume various roles. John Laird, Kerry DiMaggio, Seth Blackburn and Kirkpatrick play the people in Freed’s life — his wives, managers and employers. As images of the original musicians and singers appear on the screen, they and members of the ensemble sing the songs live.
There are about 30 songs, or parts of songs, in the show. Stevens, as Freed, also sings. He has a good Sinatra-style voice. The others are versatile, adjusting their styles to the singers and songs they illustrate, accompanied by the rockin’ band and an ensemble of singers and dancers. Some members of the cast also appear as minor characters in Freed’s story. Michelle Hansen, Jim Wilmore, Kurt Haaker, Jane Selna, Kara Logan, Otis Carter, Jenny Beck, Hannah Clarke, Oksana Moscoso, Morgan Sainsbury and Meghan O’Neil round out the ensemble.
The band, directed by Dan Murry, is the driving force, and it would have been fun to watch them play. They are ensconced in a dark den above the stage, but they deserve more visibility, at least enough light to see them. Members are Murry on keyboards, Josh Feldman, guitar, Bob Osborn, saxophone, Ed Harris, bass guitar, and Steve Hilstein, drums. They rock.
The dancing is ’50s- and early ’60s-style, choreographed by Andrew Silvaggio. The set is minimal, with Freed’s office off to one side of the stage, and a small raised stage where the singers perform. The main stage is cleared for the dancers, but furnished with chairs and tables as set pieces in some scenes. Dave Linfield is set designer.
This is a show that may be enlightening for some, loaded with tidbits of music history. For others, people of a certain age, it will be nostalgic as it recalls the age of radio morphing to television and the beginnings of the movement toward racial equality.
And then came The Beatles.