WCMA opens season with ‘50 Years of Rock & Roll’

Neil Berg created the popular touring show “100 Years of Broadway” and penned several musicals of his own, but he’s a rock ‘n’ roller at heart, touring as keyboard player with Joe D’Urso & Stone Caravan and sharing stages with such acts as Journey and Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes.

“As a historian, as a player, as a composer and author, I put shows together and tell stories,” Berg said during a telephone interview. “After the success of ‘100 Years of Broadway,’ I wanted to tell the story of rock ‘n’ roll.”

“Neil Berg’s 50 Years of Rock & Roll’ comes to Packard Music Hall on Wednesday to open the Warren Civic Music Association’s 2018-19 season.

His “100 Years of Broadway” played the WCMA series in 2015. While both are music revues, they’re very different shows. The setlist for “Broadway” changes depending upon the singers who are appearing in the show at any given time. “Rock & Roll” has a set structure and songlist, and Berg finds singers best suited to deliver the material.

“The people I use either fronted major bands, singing authentic rock ‘n’ roll or starred in Broadway musicals that were rock musicals,” he said.

The vocalists joining him in Warren will be Brook Wood, Kareema Khouri, Aaron Finley, Jarran Muse and Danny Zolli.

Finley starred in the musical “Rock of Ages” on Broadway. Muse played Marvin Gaye on Broadway and on the road in “Motown The Musical.” Zolli has starred in more than 25 productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” around the world and was a principal vocalist on The British Rock Symphony tour, which featured Roger Daltrey, Alice Cooper Darlene Love and Zak Starkey. Khouri, who is making her debut in the show next week, has appeared in such shows as “Godspell” in New York and “The Blues Brothers Show” at Universal Studios in Japan.

“Brook Wood, we call her the young gun,” Berg said. “She was featured in ‘Rockers on Broadway,’ and is one of the great young talents in the country. She can sing everything from Petula Clark to Linda Ronstadt to Stevie Nick to Janis Joplin.”

The 50 years that Berg covers in “Rock & Roll” start at the crossroads with Robert Johnson and the blues in 1930s and continue up through the early ’80s and the advent of MTV. Berg serves as the narrator and includes some of the influences on the genre. “Hound Dog” starts off in the style of Big Mama Thornton before seguing into Elvis Presley, and Berg said another segment shows how the rock roots of Bill Haley & the Comets can be traced back to Hank Williams’ guitar playing a decade before “Rock Around the Clock.”

The show covers the architects of rock (Chuck Berry, Little Richard), the Beatles and the British invasion, the ‘Summer of Love,’ the ’70s singer-songwriters and the punk era.

Berg is a music historian, but he’s also a showman, and he adapted the show to include as many crowd-pleasing elements as possible. In its first incarnation, Berg included the song “I’d Rather Go Blind” as sung by Etta James. He still believes it’s more important historically, but the Etta James’ song that audiences want to hear is “At Last,” so that’s what is in the show. He also wanted to represent the Rolling Stones with “Gimme Shelter” but realized “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was the more logical choice.

“If you like rock ‘n’ roll, you’re going to flip over this show,” he said. “If you like theater, you’re going to like this show. It appeals to both audiences.”