Review: Huey Lewis musical ‘Heart’ has splash and soul in Old Globe world premiere, if a boxed-in plot
When you’re at a Huey Lewis and the News musical, you don’t necessarily see a wrap number coming.
But early on in the Old Globe’s world-premiere production of “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” a chorus line of wage slaves at a packaging-products convention do a boisterous and funny tap routine on a carpet of bubble wrap.
That ingenious sequence, set to the 1982 hit “Workin’ for a Livin’,” manages to capture a whole lot of the enduring appeal of Lewis’ R&B-minded song catalog: its upbeat vibe, its lovably goofy humor, its solid pop sensibilities.
Like Lewis’ workmanlike and eager-to-entertain music in general, the number punches above its weight — and the same is mostly true of the show, which is built around the News’ stellar string of ’80s-era hits as well as plenty of lesser-known songs.
In fact, if this polished people-pleaser of a production goes astray, it’s in being a little too true to the unassuming spirit of the tunes it celebrates.
In looks and scale, “Heart” is a splashy show; that can make it feel a bit of a mismatch with the story, which pivots on some pretty low-key dreams that don’t necessarily leave an audience breathless at what choices the main characters might make.
It’s true in particular for the woman at the show’s center, Cassandra (the gifted Broadway pro Katie Rose Clarke), a cardboard-corporation supervisor and romantic interest of rock frontman turned worker bee Bobby (Matt Doyle, likewise a top Broadway talent).
Cassandra aspires to rise to top leadership and give a big convention speech for the firm; of course, her dad owns the joint, so the stakes in her case seem penny-stock slim, and it’s not entirely clear why her prospects need to be entwined with the (literal) patriarchy.
Her choice of mates also turns out to be a no-brainer, while Bobby’s zeal to be part of the corporate machine — especially given that working at the box factory is presented as such a jokey notion — feels only partly explained by his own father issues.
None of that is a reflection on the pair’s performances: They’re both completely appealing and true to the “heart” in the show’s title, which derives from one of Huey and the News’ dozen Top 10 hits. And there’s plenty else to like about director Gordon Greenberg’s often witty production.
It’s obvious there’s still loads of affection out there for the hard-working Lewis and his music: At Friday’s opening-night performance, the first ovation came before the curtain even rose, as the singer-songwriter and sometime San Diegan took his seat in the audience.
Entrance applause for a guy who’s not even onstage? That’s the power of love.
And for fans, “Heart” is a kind of gift — particularly in the way music supervisor and arranger Brian Usifer showcases and often transforms nearly two dozen of Lewis’ songs, which span more than three decades and include one tune written just for the show. They’re all played with crisp brio by music director Matt Doebler’s crack band, boosted by John Shivers and David Patridge’s sound design.
As always with a jukebox musical, finding ways to shape and shoehorn existing songs into a coherent narrative is everything, and writer Jonathan A. Abrams (who conceived the story with Tyler Mitchell) succeeds more often than not.
The setting in a Milwaukee box factory — designed with lots of quadrilateral quirkiness by Derek McLane — is a sly fit for “Hip to Be Square,” and also nicely captures the reformed rocker Bobby’s determination to make it in the corporate world, two years after his band’s dreams of stardom imploded.
Lorin Latarro’s zippy choreography has the joint’s workers busting out of their cubicles, as the all-business Cassandra struts among them. Soon she’ll be sparking to Bobby, while dealing with the return of her ex, the smug and uppity Tucker (played memorably by Billy Harrigan Tighe, who’s followed around by his own entourage of a cappella singers). The guy is so insufferable, of course, that Cassandra’s choice hardly seems tough.
“Heart” admirably resists the urge to wallow in New Wave Era nostalgia; its only real nod to the period is an ’80s-themed karaoke night that leads to a winningly charming duet between Cassandra and Bobby on “Do You Believe in Love?” That, and the pastels in Howell Binkley’s lighting design, which can seem a subtle ode to the very ‘80s art of Patrick Nagel. (Some of the most fun designs by the ace costumer Paloma Young and her busy crew also come in that sequence.)
The soulful-voiced Doyle proves perfect for the role, investing every number he’s in (and that’s most of them) with potent singing and a kinetic verve, as Bobby ping-pongs between his old rock life and his attraction to Cassandra — and to a more stable life than his own late musician dad could manage.
Clarke’s natural comic touch and ever-pleasing voice (which soars on the solo “It Hit Me Like a Hammer”) also charge up plenty of scenes, and there are sharp supporting performances by, among others, Patrice Covington as Bobby’s co-worker Roz, a raise-the-roof singer; Paige Faure as Cassandra’s unfailingly funny pal, Paige; Orville Mendoza as the off-the-wall tycoon Fjord; and John Dossett as Cassandra’s genial dad.
The Globe has said this show has Broadway in its sights. It might be time to think a little outside the box factory and give the main characters ambitions to match.
‘The Heart of Rock & Roll’
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.
Where: Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $39 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
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