Story: It’s 1951 and in Memphis, as elsewhere in America, blacks and whites live separately in a segregated society where white men dominate as they have since colonial days, despite the Emancipation Proclamation and the North’s victory in the Civil War a century earlier. Huey Calhoun, an aimless young white man, wanders into Delray’s, a black blues club on Beale Street, and joins the festivities, promptly raising the suspicions of owner Delray and his friends. Huey’s fervor for the music is sincere, though, and after a series of job failures he finagles an opportunity as a DJ to play the ‘black’ music for a white audience “in the middle of the (AM) dial.”
His actions are controversial with adults, but teens love the fast tempo of what is becoming known as rock ‘n’ roll. Huey’s popularity at the radio station owned by the pragmatic Mr. Simmons continues to rise, as do his feelings for Delray’s talented sister Felicia. When Huey professes his love for her, he angers Delray and, especially, racists in Memphis who angrily react to the changes taking place in their world. Huey continues to push for his music and for Felicia’s career, with a possible move to New York City for both of them, as her singing career takes off and Huey competes with a guy from Philadelphia named Richard Clark for a national TV music program. But are there too many obstacles for Huey to hurdle?
Highlights: Memphis is a joyous musical that starts with a rocking flourish on the lively opening number, Underground, and maintains interest throughout. It benefits from a catchy and infectious score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and an intelligent, intriguing script by Joe DiPietro, both of whom won Tony Awards in 2010 for their efforts. Their show opened on Broadway in October 2009 and has already surpassed 1,000 performances. The first national tour began two years later in (where else?) Memphis and currently is at the Fox Theatre.
Additionally, Memphis is a living, breathing history lesson, smartly capturing the simmering prejudices of American society in the 1950s that resulted in the Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing fight by minorities for equal and fair treatment in their quest for the pursuit of happiness described in the Declaration of Independence more than 200 years ago.
Other Info: DiPietro loosely based his story on real-life disc jockey Dewey Phillips while incorporating elements of other period DJs to fill out the character of Huey Calhoun. Phillips was the prototype of the modern-day ‘shock jock,’ but his wild antics and mental instability led to his early death at age 42 -- the same age at which Elvis Presley, who did his first radio interview with Phillips – later died.
The touring production is a blast, with Bryan’s derivative and highly energetic music brought to fruition by musical director Alvin Hough Jr. and his rousing, 10-piece band. Sergio Trujillo, who provided the infectious choreography for Jersey Boys, brings his stylized touch to the pulsating dance moves of Memphis. The dancers and the rest of the cast take full advantage of the broad Fox stage on a set cleverly designed by David Gallo that shifts between Delray’s modest nightclub, Huey’s forlorn home he shares with his mother, a bland radio station studio run by Mr. Simmons and a TV studio where Huey’s ‘Black and White Cavalcade’ features kids dancing to rock ‘n’ roll tunes sung by black performers.
The period look of the set is matched by spot-on costumes and hairdos designed by Paul Tazewell and Charles LaPointe, respectively. Ken Travis adds the sound design and the video projections in black and white are put together by Gallo and Shawn Sagady. Everything is beautifully illuminated by a rainbow of colors designed by Howell Binkley, including an imposing AM dial that looms above.
Singing is spectacular, with highlights aplenty provided by Felicia Boswell as Felicia, Will Mann as Delray’s pal Bobby and Julie Johnson as Huey’s mother. All of them can belt out tunes with powerful voices that fill the spacious Fox auditorium and energize an audience.
Bryan Fenkart captures the reckless energy and passion of Huey, emphasizing his exuberance as well as his tragically self-destructive tendencies. Quentin Earl Darrington, another strong singer, provides contrast to Huey’s unrestrained antics with the quiet resolve and concern of Delray. William Parry has a nice turn as wary but savvy businessman Simmons, while Rhett George adds a poignant touch as Gator, Delray’s bartender whose voice was silenced in youth when he saw his father lynched by a gang of thugs.
Director Christopher Ashley keeps the show’s two acts moving along at a steady pace, although the second act lacks some of the power and panache of the first half. While DiPietro’s book can be a bit formulaic in its presentation, for the most part this journey to Memphis is both a rollicking and informative fictional snapshot of American history half a century ago.
Group: Touring Company
Venue: Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Blvd.
Dates: Through May 13
Tickets: From $15; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Paul Kolnik