Corey Cott, McKenzie Kurtz and the Company of The Heart of Rock and Roll
Photograph: Courtesy Matthew MurphyThe Heart of Rock and Roll
  • Theater, Musicals
  • Recommended


The Heart of Rock and Roll

3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

Broadway review by Regina Robbins

Broadway has been catching up with the News this season. The smoky-voiced, harmonica-playing Huey Lewis and his band racked up a dozen top-10 singles in the U.S. between 1982 and 1991, one of which—“The Power of Love”—was featured in 1985’s biggest movie, Back to the Future. A musical adaptation of that time-travel classic, which has been giving Broadway audiences a nostalgia fix since last summer, includes it alongside another song from the movie, “Back in Time.” Both songs are now also featured in The Heart of Rock and Roll, which goes all in on Lewis, using his catalog—singles and deep cuts, plus one song written for the show—to transport us to a hot-pink version of the 1980s, cheerfully unbesmirched by the Cold War, AIDS or cocaine.

At a cardboard packaging company in Milwaukee, Bobby (Corey Cott) is a would-be rocker turned working stiff who channels his ambition into a 9-to-5 job. (Cue “Hip to Be Square.”) Determined to succeed at something, anything—unlike his father, a musician who died years ago—he’s gunning for promotion to the sales team. Also trying to prove herself is the boss’s daughter, Cassandra (McKenzie Kurtz), a Princeton grad who crunches numbers but aspires to impress her father (John Dossett) in a leadership role. They may both get their chance at a trade convention in Chicago, where Owen Fjord (Orville Mendoza), a hotshot Swedish furniture mogul, will be the keynote speaker; making a deal with him would give the company a much-needed boost. But Cassandra and Bobby find themselves distracted by figures from the past: she by her finance-bro ex (Billy Harrigan Tighe), he by his onetime bandmates (F. Michael Haynie, Raymond J. Lee and John-Michael Lyles). Will they try to revive old dreams or commit themselves to new ones?

The Heart of Rock and Roll | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy

The show opens with “Do You Believe in Love?” and concludes (spoiler!) with “The Power of Love,” but in between it only half-heartedly establishes a love connection for Bobby and Cassandra. Their romance is ordained by the laws of musical comedy, of course, but it should be more fun to watch it bloom. When things finally heat up halfway through Act II, the moment is pounded home with “It Hit Me Like a Hammer,” a lesser-known Lewis track that provides a star-turn opportunity for Kurtz. Up to that point, though, Cott’s rendition of “I Want a New Drug”—reimagined as a semi-erotic serenade to a guitar—is the most sexually charged moment in the show.

The Heart of Rock and Roll | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy

The Heart of Rock and Roll is at its most entertaining when it blows past just being energetic and silly and enters truly deranged territory, as in a dream ballet set to “Stuck with You,” featuring a chorus of suburban housewives pushing vacuum cleaners with one hand and holding glasses of wine in the other. But too often, book writer Jonathan A. Abrams and director Gordon Greenberg are content to get laughs by deploying reliable cultural stereotypes—Princeton alums are corny snobs! Europeans seem vaguely queer!—and period pop-culture references, including Matlock, Gordon Gekko, and Sam Goody (RIP). Also preventing the show’s freak flag from flying at full mast is Bobby’s tortured backstory about the loss of his dad. While this plot thread gives Bobby and his buddies a tender moment of group harmony in “Perfect World,” Lewis’s songs are an uneasy fit with childhood trauma.

The saving grace of The Heart of Rock and Roll—aside from Lewis and company’s appealing songs (though my personal favorite, “Heart and Soul,” is conspicuously missing!)–is the talent of its cast, which is chock-full of pros. Tamika Lawrence, as Bobby’s confidante, and the grievously underused Zoe Jensen, as Cassandra’s college bestie, provide big laughs; so does Mendoza as the sauna-obsessed, meatball-loving Swede. For some members of Generation X, what this show offers will be more than enough. Squeeze your memories into spandex and get ready to turn back the clock. Who needs a DeLorean?

The Heart of Rock and Roll. James Earl Jones Theatre (Broadway). Music and Lyrics by Huey Lewis and the News. Book by Jonathan A. Abrams. Directed by Gordon Greenberg. With Corey Cott, McKenzie Kurtz, Michael Haynie, Zoe Jensen, Tamika Lawrence, Raymond J. Lee, John-Michael Lyles, Orville Mendoza, Billy Harrigan Tighe. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.

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The Heart of Rock and Roll | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy


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