By Charlotte Alexander

Written and published in 2011

So . . . right out of the gate, be warned: if you like your rock ‘n’ roll tunes and your live theatre experiences straight up, with little embellishment or adventurous interpretation, don’t head down to San Luis Obispo Little Theatre anytime soon. The only thing that could be called minimalist in its current production of “This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Alan Freed Story” is a rather spare set design that lets the cast members have the run of the place.

And boy do they run – and shimmy, and shake, and prance, and strut. Characters get mad, get glad, get hired, get fired, and oh yes, sing their hearts out! With more than 30 songs ranging from the classic “Blue Moon” to the scandalous “Sixty Minute Man” to standards like “Mr. Sandman,” “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” and “Great Balls of Fire,” this is an oldies singing and dancing extravaganza.

Director Kevin Harris, associate director Lisa Woske and choreographer Andrew Silvaggio have created a work of heart from a script by David Vienna that has cast and crew working overtime to keep up. The only participants who seem to be keeping their own measured pace are the musicians, an awesome ensemble led by Dan Murry on keyboards and including Bob Osborn on saxophone, Steve Hilstein on percussion and Josh Feldman and Ed Harris on guitar.

The plot of this ambitious piece is essentially a history lesson about real-life disc jockey Alan Freed and his pioneering attempts to recognize and harness the power of rock ‘n’ roll and the artists who shaped its earliest incarnations. But Vienna’s script suggests an even bigger canvas, placing the action within the context of the social upheaval happening in America in the middle of the twentieth century.

Director Harris and crew go beyond the live telling of the tale, whose time and place according to the program is “all across America 1943-1962.” Using two large screens on either side of the theatre’s small thrust stage, they separate the show’s 25 scenes with a multimedia presentation that includes the printed word, video of mid-century television broadcasts and photos of vintage posters, early rock concerts (pretty tame by modern standards) and the real Alan Freed. 

The history lesson includes lots of background about real people and events, and sometimes this detracts from the re-creation of those icons and those times on the stage before you. While the information is useful – of the “I had no idea” variety – the juxtaposition doesn’t always let imagination participate in the promise of the hushed and darkened theatre.

The hard-working cast is headed by the truly remarkable Chad Stevens. Playing the slyly manipulative Freed with just the right amount of righteous but shallow indignation, Stevens opens up and touches the truth of the man’s desires with his robust but finely calibrated voice. Out front most of the show, he must lose five pounds each performance by the time he reaches his triumphant rendition of “That’s Life” near the end of the production.

Joining Stevens as standouts in versatility and energy are John Laird and Seth Blackburn as Freed’s manager and financier. Ensemble cast members Jenny Beck, Travis Nefores and Otis Carter deserve special mention for the talent and versatility they display throughout the show.

In the “Behind the Scenes” department, applause must be offered to show sponsor The Hind Foundation, which recently donated $50,000 to purchase a new audio system. This kind of investment in local community theatre is invaluable not only to the audience enjoyment of productions like “This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but to the experience of the artistic and technical volunteers behind the scenes.

“This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Alan Freed Story” at SLO Little Theatre in downtown San Luis Obispo runs through March 20.