Review: ‘The Heart of Rock and Roll’ on Broadway is a funny, warm-hearted Huey Lewis jukebox show

NEW YORK — Back in the 1980s, Huey Lewis and the News were sometimes compared to The Cars and even Elvis Costello, but their string of catchy hit singles also had the distinctive everyman air of flowing out of a bunch of regular dudes, Joe six-packs who could just as easily have been headlining at your local tavern and carrying out their own amps.

Presumably, that’s why the book writer Jonathan A. Abrams (working from a story co-written with Tyler Mitchell) chose to set the new jukebox musical “The Heart of Rock & Roll” in Milwaukee and Chicago, even though Lewis came from California. His numerous ditties, such as “If This Is It,” “Stuck With You,” “Tattoo (Giving It All Up for Love),” “Doing it All For My Baby” and “The Power of Love,” just seem to fit the Midwest.

Over time, especially since Lewis stopped touring after revealing he had hearing loss as a result of Ménière’s disease, these earworms often have become disassociated with their creators: most everyone knows “The Heart of Rock & Roll” but neither Lewis nor The News always land at top of mind.

Ideal fodder, then, for a modestly scaled and warm-hearted jukebox show that might just prove to be one of the sleeper hits of the season, thanks to an inestimably witty book with plenty of what comedians like to call hard laughs, a suite of winning lead performances under director Gordon Greenberg and another tour de force suite of choreography from Lorin Latarro, who sure has shaken up Broadway movement this season.

With the help of a killer ensemble decked out in glittery ’80s trashiness, this choreography takes an industrial assembly line in the 1980s as its starting place and lets young bodies move energetically and unpretentiously through time and space. And what a blast they are to watch. The show captures much of the energy of classics like “Road House” and even “Dirty Dancing,” as well as drawing from the Broadway world of “Rock of Ages” and “School of Rock.”

It’s kinda like a gritty Midwestern “Mamma Mia!” with paper-pushers and Lake Michigan basement dwellers taking the place of the beautiful Greeks astride the Ionian Sea.

The premise here is that the Huey-like, working-class Bobby (Corey Cott) has given up on his dreams of being in a successful band and gone to work for a Wisconsin cardboard box company (an industry that keeps on giving in the gag department). But you can’t keep an ambitious guy down and so Bobby crashes a sales convention in Chicago’s Drake Hotel, simultaneously trying to prove to the owner of the company Stone (John Dossett) and his daughter Cassandra (McKenzie Kurtz) (love interest alert!) that he can strike a deal with an IKEA-like mogul, Fjord (Orville Mendoza) for more boxes than Milwaukee has Miller Lites.

Obstacles are in the way: Cassandra has a Princeton “Pez Dispenser” (Billy Harrigan Tighe) wooing her and Bobby has old bandmates (F. Michael Haynie, Raymond J. Lee and John Michael-Lyles) who want him back. Then there’s the head of HR, Roz (Tamika Lawrence) who seems to have dreams of her own.

None of this is to be taken too seriously, of course, and there is no reinvention of any rules nor desperately pretentious grabs for awards and critical acclaim. “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” which does not look like it cost $30 million and is all the better for that, feels happy to play to its target audience of Huey fans who prefer a decent beer to Moët & Chandon any night of the week.

Aside from a truly lovely central performance from Cott, all handsome heart and full-on commitment to his loser guy’s optimism, the biggest surprise of this show is how funny it turns out to be (also true when I first saw “Mamma Mia!” before its London opening). There’s a series of wicked lines lampooning life’s little details that put me in mind of both Tina Fey and “The Office,” given how HR and paper keep on giving in this show. The show is never crass and does not overpush its genuinely warm welcome from the work-weary. Hip to be square indeed.

At the James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York;

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.