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Entertainment & Arts

Review: The Huey Lewis and the News jukebox musical ‘The Heart of Rock & Roll’ is more square than hip

F. Michael Haynie as Glenn, Lucas Papaelias as JJ, Matt Doyle as Booby, and Zachary Noah Piser as El
F. Michael Haynie as Glenn, Lucas Papaelias as JJ, Matt Doyle as Bobby, and Zachary Noah Piser as Eli in the world premiere of “The Heart of Rock & Roll” at the Old Globe.
(Jim Cox)
Theater Critic

Even when Huey Lewis was new, he was retro. More old way than new wave, his band, Huey Lewis & the News, is as much a part of the 1980s as the movie “Back to the Future” (which memorably unleashed Lewis’ monster hit “The Power of Love”). But like that film, the music, at once timeless and anachronistic, doesn’t really belong to any decade.

So there was no reason for me to be so surprised that “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” the Huey Lewis and the News jukebox musical now having its world premiere at the Old Globe, is set in the present. There are no mullets on stage. “Dynasty” and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” aren’t dribbling out of TV sets in the background. Members Only jackets are nowhere to be found.

The book by Jonathan A. Abrams (from a story he collaborated on with Tyler Mitchell) begins at Chicago’s Empty Bottle Club, where a struggling rock band called the Loop has been jamming for a decade. Bobby (Matt Doyle), the frontman for the group, has grown tired of the grind. After banging out “Walking on a Thin Line,” he tells his fellow band members that he wants more from life “than random girls, a constant hangover and living off overdraft protection.” His adult alarm clock is going off and he’s determined to stop hitting the snooze button.

At the ripe old age of 35, Bobby decides to go corporate. He moves to Milwaukee to take a sales job at a cardboard box company, a decision that might have been influenced by the need for the musical’s creators to find a place for the song “Hip to Be Square.” This is just one of Huey Lewis & the News’ many hits (there are more than you probably remember) that have to be plugged into the storyline, like lively words in a Mad Libs game.

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The natural response to a show of this sort isn’t theater criticism but a Yelp review.

The show revolves around Bobby’s conflicting desires. He’s eager to make the executive sales team at Stone Inc., the family business owned and run by Stone (John Dossett), whose attractive, insecure daughter Cassandra (Katie Rose Clarke) is trying to prove her corporate mettle.

But Bobby still has vestigial longings for rock-star glory.

The dilemma of his incompatible ambitions will come to a head when the Great Lakes Shipping Convention has its annual three-day conference in Chicago, reuniting him with his old band-mates, who are trying to stage a comeback.

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John Dossett as Stone and Katie Rose Clarke as Cassandra with the cast of The Heart of Rock & Roll,
John Dossett as Stone and Katie Rose Clarke as Cassandra
(Jim Cox)

Jukebox musicals come in many varieties. “Jersey Boys” (the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons juggernaut) and “Ain’t Too Proud” (the new Temptations musical at the Ahmanson) tell the story behind the music. “Mamma Mia!” — the mother of the blockbuster form — slots in gold records into a plot too ditzy to analyze. “American Idiot” draws a tenuous narrative from recurring themes and images in the lyrics and then packages it as a hybrid form, part alternative rock opera, part music video.

There are other jukebox formats, from the more artful revues to the more baldly commercial stage compilations. But the challenge common to all is how to link disparate songs into a theatrical experience that’s more than the sum of its hits.

It’s the kind of show that might have you saying, “Aw, shucks! This isn’t very good, but I like it anyway!”

“The Heart of Rock & Roll” has a sitcom quality not unlike “Escape to Margaritaville.” The Huey Lewis and the News show doesn’t have the inebriated loucheness of that Jimmy Buffett vehicle. It’s more clean-cut in its sensibility, more earnestly ingenuous. It’s the kind of show that might have you saying, “Aw, shucks! This isn’t very good, but I like it anyway!”

The audience at the matinee I attended seemed to be having a genuinely good time. I overheard the woman behind me say she hadn’t stepped foot in the Old Globe in 20 years. Huey Lewis must have enticed her return. What’s a critic to say? The natural response to a show of this sort isn’t theater criticism but a Yelp review.

So was it fun or a dud?

Depends on how nostalgic you are for Huey Lewis & the News. On a scale of one to 10, I’m about a three in my yearning to bop in my seat to “I Want a New Drug,” “Stuck With You” and “If This Is It.”

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My tolerance for dopey sitcom writing, I should admit, is pretty low. I’m the human opposite of a laugh track. When the inept banter is bandied, I silently smolder. It’s bewildering to me that more people aren’t made fidgety by the boredom, but my surreptitious survey of theatergoers suggests this kind of material must have a pleasant tranquilizing effect.

‘The Heart of Rock & Roll’ doesn’t seem slick enough for Broadway. But let’s be honest: Broadway isn’t slick enough for Broadway these days.

“The Heart of Rock & Roll” doesn’t seem slick enough for Broadway. But let’s be honest: Broadway isn’t slick enough for Broadway these days. To call this tourist fare is merely to say that its appeal is generic and, yes, a bit gimcrack.

The production, straightforwardly directed by Gordon Greenberg, has appealing leads in Doyle and Clarke. One scene they share, at a karaoke bar, captures the spirit of the show. Bobby is trying win a massive cardboard box order from Fjord (Orville Mendoza), an eccentric Finish-Mongolian mogul who likes conducting business in odd places. Fjord is impressed by passion. He’s arranged this karaoke outing to see what Bobby is made of.

Bobby, of course, is completely at home performing before a crowd, but Casandra is terrified of public speaking. But once the two start singing “Do You Believe in Love,” they both turn out to be world-class talents, so what choice do they have but to fall in love?

It’s sweet, but can we speed this along?

The production allows the book to set the sluggish pace. Supporting performances by Patrice Covington as Bobby’s stern yet sympathetic supervisor (with a big talent for singing herself) and F. Michael Haynie as the Loop’s embarrassingly gung-ho bassist lend some kick. But the characters all seem to have sprung from a writers’ room software program.

The choreography by Lorin Latarro only noticeably takes off in a “Stomp”-style number that has the ensemble dancing boisterously on bubble wrap to “Workin’ For a Livin’.” As rock shows go, this one has the energy of a solid PBS pledge-week concert.

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The word that best describes this jukebox musical might just be “workaday.” The whiff of the assembly line is unmistakable, but theatergoers don’t seem to mind punching their timecards for a steady paycheck of entertainment.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The Heart of Rock & Roll

Where: Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 21

Tickets: $39 and up

Information: (619) 234-5623, theoldglobe.org

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty


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