THE HEART OF ROCK AND ROLL Is Bubbleheaded Fun on Broadway — Review


Corey Cott and McKenzie Kurtz | Photo: Matthew Murphy

Joey Sims
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April 22, 2024 8:00 PM

I am pleased to report that modern musical masterpiece American Psycho did not, in fact, close swiftly on Broadway in 2016. Patrick Bateman’s story instead lives on in Tucker, the finely-suited businessman and proud psychopath who winds up the true hero of new musical The Heart of Rock and Roll, which opened tonight at the James Earl Jones Theatre. Tragically, Tucker’s perfect life is ultimately wrecked by a collection of sad losers clinging desperately to their one and only inexplicable dream — selling cardboard. 

Tucker first appears when Rock and Roll arrives at its primary setting: the 1987 Midwest Packaging Convention in Chicago’s Drake Hotel. (Likely place for a musical to be!) Portrayed by Billy Harrison Tighe as a closeted homosexual with a deep emptiness inside, Tucker is a college ex-boyfriend of Cassandra (McKenzie Kurtz, a frenzied delight). Cassandra has moved home to help her father Mr. Stone (John Dossett, invaluable) with the family cardboard factory in her hometown of Milwaukee, following her mother’s death.

Staying at the same hotel for reasons I didn’t quite grasp, Tucker sees a chance to rekindle things with Cassandra. Formerly a stockbroker, Tucker explains that he’s left all that behind. 

“I finally figured out what’s truly important in life,” he declares. “Private equity.” 

It’s a good line, one of the few legitimate bangers in Jonathan A. Abrams’ mostly baffling book (Tyler Mitchell co-wrote the story). And Cassandra seems intrigued. Why not? So what if Tyler has vampirish white skin and greasy slick-black blonde hair, or has very obviously killed before and shall kill again? 

It’s not like Cassandra has a great set of options. Her other prospect is doltish factory worker Bobby (Corey Cott), who her father has just fired after he negotiated a money-losing contract while posing as part of their sales team. Looking to make up for his blunder, Bobby follows Cassandra and Daddy Stone to the convention, hoping to bring in the business of Swedish furniture mogul Otto Fjord (Orville Mendoza) and rescue the factory.

The company | Photo: Matthew Murphy

To help in this hairbrained scheme, Bobby enlists his best and possibly only friend Roz (Tamika Lawrence), who runs Human Resources at the cardboard factory. She implausibly agrees, sighing: “What the hell, it’s the 80’s!”

Indeed. It sure is the 80’s, as evidenced by the cast’s impressive assortment of flattops, mullets and jeri curls (Nikiya Mathis did the purposefully over the top hair & wig design); the ensemble’s gaudy collection of jumpsuits and and short-shorts (costumes by Jen Caprio); and of course, by the show’s music, comprised entirely of chart-topping anthems from pop rock band Huey Lewis and the News. 

Huey Lewis’ discography is woven into the story with a looseness that makes Escape to Margaritaville seem downright Pulitzer-worthy. The factory workers rock out to “Hip to be Square” on the assembly line while smashing cardboard into shape with big hammers. (Is that how you make cardboard?) Later, in his sales pitch to Fjord, Bobby inquires through song: “Do You Believe In Love?” How “Believing In Love” connects to large-scale box production contracts is left unclear. 

Meanwhile, “It’s All Right” is trotted out whenever any character is uncertain about anything – most confusingly when Bobby is struggling to choose between two paths: life as a cardboard man, or reuniting with his old band The Loop. You see, Bobby is also a failed rock star – but after he helps out his old bandmates with a one-night engagement in Chicago, a tour contract materializes. Which path should Bobby choose: paper or rock?

“It’s all right,” sings Roz, who seems like she could care less if he chose scissors. “Just say it’s all right.” What is all right, exactly? Does she mean that either choice would be correct? Or that Bobby is doing his best in a tough situation? He’s really not at all – Bobby makes contradictory promises in every scene, to the point where he seems less conflicted and more sociopathic. 

Corey Cott | Photo: Matthew Murphy

And should this choice really be so hard? Bobby keeps saying that factory life in Milwaukee is his home, but the show makes his life seem miserable. In fact, every character’s reasons for holding onto the cardboard factory seem horribly depressing. Daddy Dossett was drafted to play baseball for the Brewers, but gave up that dream to run the place. Now Cassandra is stuck there too, when she could be building a life of her own. This cardboard factory is a curse, and they’re all trapped! Corey Cott, take your astonishing abs and fine-ass butt and get the hell out of there! 

To distract from this baffling tale, director Gordon Greenberg’s high-energy production throws a ton of pure adrenaline at the audience. At times, it works. An exuberantly silly bubble-wrap based dance number is a delight, and Tucker’s terrifying a cappella group “The Undertones'' delivers an impressive rendition of “Give Me The Keys.” (Tucker cues up that number with the opener, “5…6…Sweater vest!”). When it truly pops off, Lorin Latarro’s lunatic choreography is actually some of the sharpest on Broadway this season. 

Perhaps the show’s most glorious touch is a bizarre fantasy sequence imagining a perfect life between Cassandra and murderous Tucker. Beginning as a serene suburban scene, the wordless dream sequence takes a nightmarish Don’t Worry Darling-esque turn. Tucker cheats with abandon and Cassandra falls into an alcoholic depression. The sequence ends with her stabbing Tucker to death with a stiletto. The show snaps back to reality, and the bizarre digression is never again acknowledged. 

Outside of that enjoyable kooky detour, the show mostly plods through its confounding second act, weighed down by the essential strangeness of Bobby’s narrative dilemma. (“It’s cardboard!” one of Bobby’s bandmates screams in frustration, a rare burst of clarity that is swiftly dismissed.) Evil Tucker is ultimately sent packing, but he gets the last laugh, faking out Bobby on a handshake and then doing a backflip. And shortly following the events of this musical, Tucker shall, without a doubt, take bloody vengeance against each and every one of these cardboard-loving losers. 

The Heart of Rock and Roll is now in performance at the James Earl Jones Theatre on West 48th Street in New York City.

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Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre Magazine, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium, Broadway’s Best Shows, and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt, and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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