The musical “Rock & Roll Man” starts with an attention-grabbing gambit: It is 1965, and J. Edgar Hoover is prosecuting the D.J. and promoter Alan Freed, then at death’s door. Hoover has accused Freed of destroying “the American way of life by inventing the genre of music which you named rock and roll.”
A good clue that the scene takes place not in reality but in the mind of the ailing Freed (Constantine Maroulis, from “Rock of Ages” and “Jekyll & Hyde”) is that he is defended by Little Richard (Rodrick Covington) — who is quick to point out that his client did not actually invent rock.
What Freed did do was play R&B singles on the radio shows he hosted in Cleveland and then New York, introducing so-called race records to white audiences. He then marketed the music as “rock and roll.”
The bulk of this bio-show, which opened on Wednesday at New World Stages, consists of a flashback that unfurls infinitely more conventionally than the prologue.
In the early 1950s, Freed discovers new sounds at a record store run by Leo Mintz (Joe Pantoliano), and he immediately falls in love with the raucous music bringing white and Black teenagers together. His growing success as a D.J. takes him to New York, where he starts associating with Morris Levy (Pantoliano again), the shady record label and nightclub owner.
Gary Kupper, Larry Marshak and Rose Caiola’s book dutifully strings together a parade of hits by the likes of LaVern Baker (Valisia LeKae), Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott), Chuck Berry and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (both played by Matthew S. Morgan). But Randal Myler’s production never generates early rock’s chaotic, often suggestive energy. Freed may have imagined the trial, but it reflects a time when rock was seen as an attack on the sexual and racial order; the show, however, make it hard to understand why Freed and the artists he championed were seen as a threat to American values.
Freed was an interesting fellow, and his life was plenty rock ’n’ roll. Unfortunately, the show mostly skims over the fact that in addition to hobnobbing with Levy — they both eventually went down for payola — Freed overindulged in booze and women. The storytelling is especially haphazard when dealing with his family life.
Even worse is that since Freed himself did not sing, Maroulis — a former “American Idol” contestant who is the rare musical-theater performer able to convincingly rock — doesn’t get to do any of the hits and is instead stuck performing perfunctory originals written by Kupper. He gets to let loose a little on the title number, at the very end of the show, but by then it’s too little and way too late.
Rock & Roll Man
At New World Stages, Manhattan; newworldstages.com. Running time: 2 hours.