Alan Freed musical rocks SLO Little Theatre
February 21, 2011
If you love music and live theater, consider yourself lucky to live on the Central Coast. Sure, it’s not Broadway, but a nice little niche has developed right here in sleepy little SLO Town. San Luis Obispo Little Theatre deserves credit for creating a string of hit music tribute shows over the past decades that always had audiences buzzing about what musical icon might be tackled next.
Well, newly-appointed Managing Artistic Director Kevin Harris has the answer: all of them under the life story of famed disc jockey Alan Freed, who made many of them famous while beginning a quiet, little movement known as ‘rock n’ roll. ‘This is Rock ‘n’ Roll’ — The Alan Freed Story ‘is that latest stage production at the cozy 153-seat theater near City Hall.
As with any biographical chronicle, you need to find the right person to convey the essence of larger-than-life personalities like Freed. And Harris definitely found his man in local radio personality Chad Stevens. With a strong supporting cast, tight music performed live by the ever-popular Oasis, and crisp new sound system lending assistance, Stevens literally carries the narrative on his shoulders.
The veteran actor appears in every scene and is compelling as he portrays Freed’s genius, vision, hubris and ultimate downfall. Stevens shares singing duties with the band and cast , of whom John Laird is particularly impressive playing Freed’s manager Jack Hooke. His booming voice lends gravitas to songs like ‘Sixty Minute Man’ and ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’.
Working with David Vienna’s solid script, Harris deftly uses two large video screens to set the context with historical footage and chronological info, a nice touch when presenting a work of non-fiction.
Harris and Vienna could have gone the easy route using more popular songs like Rock Around the Clock, Tutti Frutti, or Ain’t that a Shame but they stay true to the Freed story by mixing in early hits like ‘Rocket 88’, Big Momma Thornton’s ‘Hound Dog’ and the amusing ‘Party Doll’ by Buddy Knox with classic staples like ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and. ‘Chantilly Lace’. Thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Hind Corp to upgrade the theater’s sound system, the music sounds better than ever.
Still, you need the anchor to pull it off and just like Roy Henry as Ray Charles and Nat King Cole, Stevens is Alan Freed for the entire two-hour play. Though he doesn’t really look like the famous DJ, a dark-haired, Jewish easterner, Stevens is spot on in his portrayal of this complex, conflicted American despite his blondish pseudo-pompadour. Fellow radio personality Seth Blackburn as his investor/partner Morris Levy and Kerry Dimaggio as Freed’s opportunistic mistress Jackie McCoy also shine.
I’ve always felt the Central Coast is full of talented if unappreciated artists, musicians and actors. But there’s a culture here that would rather stay in the comfort of their homes than venture out and witness this local talent.
Trust me, the Alan Freed story at the SLO Little Theatre is reason enough to get off the couch.
‘This is Rock ‘N’ Roll — The Alan Freed Story’ plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through March 20 at SLO Little Theatre. Ticket information is available through the web site.