It's all right to groove to Huey in 'The Heart of Rock and Roll'

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It's all right to groove to Huey in 'The Heart of Rock and Roll'
McKenzie Kurtz as Cassandra and Corey Cott as Bobby in “The Heart of Rock and Roll” at the James Earl Jones Theater in Manhattan, March 28, 2024. The new musical doesn’t take itself too seriously and has many winning moments — almost enough to eclipse the weaknesses of its story. (Amir Hamja/The New York Times)

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

NEW YORK, NY.- It’s 2024, and Huey Lewis is having a moment. Just let that sink in.

Lewis was an unexpected highlight of the recent Netflix documentary “The Greatest Night in Pop,” about the star-studded 1985 session where “We Are the World” was recorded. An everyman rocker, Lewis was amazed (and still is) that he was rubbing elbows with Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen. He even got to sing the part originally intended for Prince.

Now comes the new Broadway show “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” which is not so much a Huey Lewis (and the News) musical as the Huey Lewis of musicals: not taking itself too seriously, doing what it does well, and just happy to be on Broadway, keeping company with starrier productions.

Like most jukeboxes, “The Heart of Rock and Roll” shoehorns big hits, including “The Power of Love” and “Stuck With You,” with lesser-known tracks into a plot generic enough to accommodate them.

Set in 1987, Jonathan A. Abrams’ book, based on a story by Tyler Mitchell and Abrams, centers on Bobby (Corey Cott, from the underrated “Bandstand”), an employee at an ailing cardboard box manufacturer, Stone Inc., in Milwaukee. Bobby works on the assembly line, but he really wants to join the sales department so he can “Be Someone,” as the show’s new song puts it. Wait, no, maybe what he really wants is to rock out with his old band, the Loop. Bobby might sing “It’s Hip to Be Square,” but deep down, does he really believe it?

By now you might have noticed that dreams play a big part in “The Heart of Rock and Roll.” There are numerous references to chasing the dream, making it come true and living it, but also giving it up. Sentimentality is often ladled out, along with cliches. And Bobby, whose sole personality trait appears to be “good guy,” carries more than his share of both — he hears the fateful siren call “one last show” and lugs emotional baggage related to his “old man.” At least Cott gives Bobby a laid-back charm that’s not unlike Lewis’ own, along with his emotional big Act II aria, “The Only One.”

Fortunately, there is also enough good-natured goofball humor to keep Gordon Greenberg’s production from sinking into cloying goo. Much of the levity comes from amusing supporting characters, starting with Bobby’s love interest and his boss’ daughter, Cassandra (McKenzie Kurtz, a recent Glinda in “Wicked”). She is an uber-dork with a fondness for spreadsheets, and Kurtz’s Cassandra is a daffy delight that recalls Annaleigh Ashford’s performance in “Kinky Boots.”

That is not the only time “The Heart of Rock and Roll” brings to mind that hit, which is also set at a factory. Like Jerry Mitchell’s in the earlier show, Lorin Latarro’s high-energy choreography here makes clever use of props, having employees slide on cardboard sheets and deploying the ensemble in a number that involves jumping on Bubble Wrap.

That scene takes place at a packaging convention, where Stone Inc. is trying to drum up business. For obscure reasons, the company’s sensible head of human resources, Roz (a wonderfully droll Tamika Lawrence), has tagged along. She, too, had to make a life-changing decision once — “and it’s a good thing,” Roz dryly quips, “because otherwise I never would have found the unbridled joy of ‘human resources.’” (This sets up the best plot twist, which comes at the very end.)

Naturally, nice Midwesterners need a wicked antagonist, preferably of the putting-on-airs kind (a big no-no in the Huey Lewis universe). And here the show over-delivers thanks to loose-limbed physical-comedy ace Billy Harrigan Tighe and his memorable performance as Tucker, Cassandra’s cocky finance-bro ex. In the number “Give Me the Keys (And I’ll Drive You Crazy),” he and his old Princeton a cappella group, the Undertones, invite Cassandra for a ride in a pretend car. The moment when Kurtz mimes opening the door and Tighe mimes rolling down the window is a strong contender for single funniest scene of the Broadway spring.

While the dialogue has occasional pop, it’s the performances that keep the show rolling, along with Greenberg and Latarro’s fast-paced, resourceful staging. Bobby’s “I Want a New Drug,” for example, is an economical summary of why many men join rock bands: In his hotel room at the convention, just as he pulls out his beloved guitar, handling it like a holy relic, three women magically emerge from inside the bed — in a nifty touch, their outfits are stylized representations of Bobby’s axe. (The costumes are by Jen Caprio.)

“The Heart of Rock and Roll” is not going to be the subject of think pieces and graduate theses, but its easygoing good spirits are bolstered by solid craftsmanship, and it’d be silly to turn up our noses at that. “Have a good time,” Huey Lewis once sang, wisely quoting Curtis Mayfield. “’Cause it’s all right.”

‘The Heart of Rock and Roll’At the James Earl Jones Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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