PITTSFIELD — There is a potentially rich, vibrant musical to be made from the career and life of Alan Freed, the man who gave rock and roll its voice and name. Until then, we have "Rock and Roll Man — The Alan Freed Story," a thinly written, shallow, grind-it-out jukebox musical that incorporates some original musical material by Gary Kupper at Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre through Sunday.
Freed, who was among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's freshman class of 1986, is considered the father of rock and roll. He was introduced to this jiving, high-energy music that had captured the bodies and souls of black youth, integrated it into American pop culture and launched and/or boosted the careers of such legendary groups and artists as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bill Haley and the Comets, Frankie Lymon, Jackie Wilson, The Cadillacs, LaVern Baker, Screamin' Jay Hawkins through a series of big, splashy concerts at arenas around the country and, later, a few movies that expanded his fame along with that of his performers. His all-star events at Brooklyn's long since gone Paramount Theatre through the '50s and early '60s were the stuff of legend. They were the beat of the hearts of adolescents and pre-adolescents throughout the city and environs.
He ruled the air waves as a disc jockey first on WINS and then WABC in New York. He crashed and burned in the notorious payola scandal that swept the radio broadcast industry. Freed was being investigated for taking pay from record companies for playing certain records by certain artists — charges he vigorously denied. He claimed throughout that he played only records that he liked. The combination of the scandal, massive problems with the IRS and his most personal demon, alcohol, left him blacklisted in the record industry and all but forgotten, spinning discs on an obscure radio station in Palm Springs, Calif., where he was living with his third wife, Inga, until his death at in a nearby hospital on Jan. 20, 1965, from cirrhosis, brought on by his alcoholism. He was 43.
"Rock and Roll Man" begins on the stage of the Paramount Theatre on a night in 1958 and then skips ahead to 1965 and his home in Palm Springs where Inga is gently encouraging him to stay sober, as he pours himself a drink before dinner.
"I know honey. I'm gonna cut back," he says.
"You've got to be in good shape when you get back to work. You still have plenty of fans out there, Al," she replies, good cheerleader that she is.
And as the evening radio newscast reports on Freed's tax problems with the IRS, a seeming escalation in Vietnam, and the surge of Beatlemania as the British band is about to begin its second U.S. tour, Freed (Alan Campbell) drifts off to sleep on the couch. He awakens in a dream that finds him in a courtroom somewhere in the ether in which his entire legacy is on trial. He is being charged with "the destruction of the American way of life by inventing the genre of music which you have named rock and roll," prosecutor J. Edgar Hoover (George Wendt) snarls while Freed's court-appointed defender, Little Richard (Richard Crandle), does his best to protect his client from the onslaught.
And so, off we go on an excursion through the basics of Freed's career as he moves from a small radio station in in Salem, Ohio to Akron; eventually landing in Cleveland where he begins playing this music on his "Moondog House" radio show. He and his show catch the attention of the owners of WINS radio in New York, who bring Freed to the Big Apple. And, of course, here is where all innocence is lost. Freed's use of Moondog lands him and WINS in a copyright infringement suit by the original Moondog. Freed also forms an odd sort of business relationship with a shady music promoter and manager named Morris Levy (a skillful and adroit Bob Ari, who also plays Leo Mintz, the Cleveland record store owner who sponsors "Moondog House" in Cleveland and introduces Freed to the music that is making kids dance — "Colored kids have been listening to this music for years," Leo tells Freed, "but all of a sudden white kids started showing up and asking for it"). Levy locks the ingenuous, too-trusting Freed into a business arrangement that will eventually prove his financial undoing. "Whatever it takes. I gotta get these shows on," Campbell's Freed says in all gosh-and-gollies earnestness as he prepares to make his pact with the devil.
"Rock and Roll Man" periodically returns to the courtroom where Wendt's gnarly, sneering Hoover prods Freed on in his narrative. "Now, how about about Chuck Berry, Mr. Freed?" Hoover snarls at one point. "Okay, Mr. Freed. Now why don't you tell us about your pal, Morris Levy?" he barks at another. Nothing subtle here.
Between courtroom scenes, "Rock and Roll Man" is a whirlwind of dutifully rendered musical numbers that evoke, rather than mimic, these singular artists and their signature hits against a background of a dance ensemble that executes Brian Reeder's choreography with steadfast purpose. For good measure, the show's creators, Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak and Rose Caiola, introduce an engaging Quartet (Early Clover, A.J. Davis, Jerome Jackson and Dr, Eric B. Turner) that functions as a kind of Greek Chorus — Moondog style.
Director Randal Myler, set designer Tim Mackabee and lighting designer Matthew Richards provide a dizzying atmosphere that is in seemingly perpetual motion.
The narrative is overly simplistic in its writing and shallow in its arc. What is most unsettling is the Alan-Freed-as-Mr. Rogers texture of the depiction of Freed. Freed was was deeply committed to the music he played and the artists he promoted and featured and our popular music landscape might have been quite different had it not been for him. But he seems barely touched here by the demons that poked and prodded at him. As played by Campbell under Myler's direction, Freed seems an innocent bystander in his own life. You instinctively sense a complexity about Freed that is nowhere near suggested in Campbell's performance. It is as if the Freed everyone talks about exists in some parallel universe while we are left to empathize with this pure, bewildered, helpless, childlike soul whose only aim in life was to let what he characterized as "a river of music which has absorbed many streams" flow unimpeded. He did and the legacy he left is undeniable. But it came at a cost. How interesting it would have been to have had a musical about that.