By Cameron Hughes

Jukebox musicals (of which The Heart of Rock and Roll: A New Musical Comedy is one) are somewhat flawed by definition. They collect familiar pop songs and weave contrived stories around them. The problem is, pop songs are written as complete stand-alone entities, self-contained stories and philosophies that last but minutes. Typical Broadway musicals, on the other hand, develop songs that have a symbiotic relationship to the plot.

Storylines in jukebox musicals can be imaginative, but even in the best cases the results are somewhat jarring. The Heart of Rock and Roll uses the music of Huey Lewis & The News and takes effective liberties with the familiar structures, and by placing them in interesting contexts which emphasize unexpected interpretations, this show succeeds better than many. But the inherent limitations still remain. Fortunately the music is so damn infectious and the story so playfully silly, it hardly matters.

The Heart of Rock and Roll takes place in the mid 1980s and tells the story of Bobby Stivic (Ross Lekites in Tuesday night’s performance, filling in with enthusiasm, accomplishment, and effective emotion for cast regular Corey Cott). For ten years Bobby was lead singer in an unsuccessful rock band but quit in search of corporate success. He works on the factory floor of a cardboard company making boxes and hopes to one day move into the executive ranks as a salesman. Attempts to impress his boss Chuck Stone (John Dossett) backfire and Bobby’s let go. He’s motivated though and continues to work on another deal in the hopes of impressing Chuck and getting his job back… with maybe a larger role.

While this is happening, Bobby reconnects with his old band. He performs with them for what’s supposed to be a one-off, but the band is offered a contract to tour for a year; the big time seems almost within reach. Return to the corporate world or pursue the rock and roll dream? This is the main conflict of the show.

There’s a love interest in Cassandra Stone (McKenzie Kurtz) who’s also the boss’ daughter. More conflict is introduced by the reappearance of Casandra’s old flame Tucker (Billy Harrigan Tighe) who serves as the show’s obligatory villain.

There are other fun characters here including Roz (Tamika Lawrence) who works in the cardboard company’s HR department, Fjord (Orville Mendoza) who owns a successful furniture chain, and Bobby’s bandmates Glenn (F. Michael Haynie), JJ (Raymond J. Lee), and Eli (John-Michael Lyles).

Though set in the 1980s (with great hair and costumes), this show shares DNA with the TV show Happy Days set in the 1950s. It’s playful, campy, sometimes corny, often amusing, and at times truly clever and funny. But it’s cartoonish and can be a little to “oh gosh” and “gee willikers” for its own good with some (lighthearted) groans from the audience.

But the tunes are the stars of this show. Sometimes reimagined, at other times – such as when Bobby’s band performs them – they more closely resemble the familiar popular versions. (In those moments you sometimes miss the engaging huskiness of Lewis’ original vocals.) Having the band do them frees the lyrics from the need to advance or reflect the story. Even if you aren’t a big fan of Lewis – I admit to being unfamiliar with several of the deeper cuts – the music is so infectious it doesn’t matter. Highlights include the amusingly staged “Hip To Be Square” in the cardboard factory where the cast twirls square boxes, “Workin’ For A Livin’,” “The Heart of Rock and Roll” which closes the first act with a bang, “I Want A New Drug,” and of course “The Power of Love.” You can see a full list of numbers here.

Special kudos must be given to Lorin Lazaro’s astonishing acrobatic choreography which is absolutely thrilling. Also memorable is Kurtz’s joyful comic performance and her commanding singing with its selective use of vibrato.

With: Corey Cott (Bobby), McKenzie Kurtz (Cassandra), Josh Breckenridge (Wyatt), F. Michael Haynie (Glenn), Zoe Jensen (Paige), Tamika Lawrence (Roz), Raymond J. Lee (JJ), John-Michael Lyles (Eli), Orville Mendoza (Fjord), Billy Harrigan Tighe (Tucker), and John Dossett (Stone).

Creative Team: Huey Lewis and the News (Music), Jonathan A. Abrams (Book/Story), Tyler Mitchell (Story), Gordon Greenberg (Director), Lorin Lazaro (Choreographer), Brian Usifer (Music Supervision, Arrangements, and Orchestrations), Derek McLane (Scenic Designer), Jen Caprio (Costume Designer), Japhy Weideman (Lighting Designer), John Shivers (Sound Designer), Nikiya Mathis (Hair, Wig, and Makeup Designer), and Will Van Dyke (Music Director).

The Heart of Rock and Roll is playing at the James Earl Jones Theatre (138 W. 48th Street). Running time is 2hrs 30min with one intermission. Performances are Tuesday and Thursday at 7:00p, Wednesdays at 7:30p, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00p, with matinees Sundays at 3:00p and Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2:00p. Tickets are available here.