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Taking What They’re Given: “The Heart of Rock and Roll” reviewed

“It’s All Right,” the 1993 Huey Lewis and the News cover of the Curtis Mayfield classic may not be the band’s best-known outing, but it does represent a desire for the chart-topping band to be taken a bit more seriously as a rock-and-soul outfit than their greatest-hits catalog would have you believe. And it jives with the conflicting ambitions of Bobby (Corey Cott), the main character of the colorful new musical The Heart of Rock and Roll, just opening at the James Earl Theater.

Set in 1987 with a book by Jonathan A. Abrams’s book, based on a story by Abrams and Tyler Mitchell and Abrams, Heart centers around Bobby, a former rock musician working at a struggling Milwaukee cardboard box manufacturer, a family operation called Stone Incorporated and run by Stone himself (veteran John Dossett). Bobby works on the assembly line, but he really wants to join the sales department so he can “Be Someone,” to quote a new Huey Lewis song included in the show.

After an ambitious gaffe costs the company a fortune – and Bobby his job – he makes a Hail Mary pass at a major packaging industry convention in Chicago, where both he and Cassandra (McKenzie Kurtz), Stone’s numbers-driven daughter at second-in-command, arrive at their own personal crossroads. Bobby eventually must choose between advancement and stability within the corporate world or returning to his glory days when his old band gets a promising new gig, while she, newly smitten with Bobby, finds herself caught between her new crush and her ex, Tucker (Billy Harrigan Tighe), a preppie Princeton blowhard.

If this all sounds very middle-of-the-road, well, Heart, directed with great flair by Gordon Greenberg, isn’t trying to be anything else. It isn’t dramatic like Days of Wine and Roses or The Notebook, nor epic in scope a la Lempicka or Suffs. It simply wants to call back to a fun era, a la The Wedding Singer-style, with Me-Decade culture and fashion references thrown in from across the decade, Goldbergs-style. Jen Caprio’s costume design and Nikiya Mathis’s hair, wig, and makeup design fully commit to the mission, with Japhy Weideman’s lighting design, Brian Usifer’s orchestrations, and John Shivers’ sound design all bringing great clarity to the proceedings.

But real thought has been put in beneath the bubble-gum sheen – including a bubble wrap dance set to  “Workin’ for a Livin’,” a n inventive reinterpretation of “I Want a New Drug,” and an extended nightmare ballet evoking Cassandra’s fears of middle-class conformity that casts “Stuck With You” in a new light, making a convincing case for go-to choreographer Lorin Latarro as one of the show’s main stars.

About the cast itself: they’re all excellent. Cott doesn’t only get to show off his impressive gym body but absolutely soars as the earnest Bobby, adding real pathos to the little-known number “The Only One,” and sharing a winning chemistry with Kurtz, a major star in the making. Tamika Lawrence also makes mincemeat of the Hamburger Helper she’s handed as Roz, a Stone HR manager and confidant to Bobby, Dossett is reliably charming, and Josh Breckenridge and Zoe Jensen also do what they can to fill out their slim roles as Cassandra’s own friends. Tighe and F. Michael Haynie, Raymond J. Lee, and John-Michael Lyles, as Bobby’s old friends, are all appropriately scene-stealing as well.

Could Abrams and Mitchell have tightened things up along the way? Sure. Our big act-one closer – the title song – doesn’t even include our leading heroine or antagonist, and the second act meanders a bit, only for half of the show’s big climax to ostensibly occur offstage.

And yet Greenberg’s production really does cut to the, well, heart of the matter. This show is a pure delight from start to finish. Not only that; it really shows what matters in life. The Heart of Rock and Roll is a show about (and for) earnest, middle-class people who want to have a job they like and partner with someone they love. That may sound old-fashioned, but hey: I’ve heard that in some circles, it’s hip to be square.

The Heart of Rock and Roll
James Earl Jones Theatre