Inspired by the life of 1950s Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, whose “Red, Hot, how to write a personal essay and Blue” radio show was one of the first to bring black music to the attention of white audiences, “Memphis” is the story of the struggle to integrate American music and popular culture. It’s a struggle that mirrored the parallel battle playing out in the political arena.
In the same way that white racists attacked blacks as morally degenerate and intellectually inferior, they also attacked blues, R&B, and rock and roll as immoral and “un-Christian”. It was “race music”. Respectable (i.e. white) stations didn’t play it and white kids weren’t supposed to listen to it—a point driven home in a disturbing scene in which a white teen dancing to a soul tune is viciously slapped by her father. It was the beginning of the culture wars that still generate casualties today.
That climate of fear, hate, and rigid segregation is the backdrop for the plot of “Memphis”. It centers on Huey Calhoun, a white kid infatuated both with black music and with Felicia Farrell, a singer at a black Beale Street club run by her brother Delray. Through sheer persistence, Huey lands a job playing black music on a local white radio station. The music catches on with Memphis teens and Huey’s fame grows, Felicia’s singing career takes flight, and their affair blossoms despite opposition from Delray and Huey’s bigoted mothers.
In the apartheid America of the 1950s, alas, the course of interracial love ne’er did run smooth. Boy does not, in this case, get girl. Felicia gets her fame, but not without a cost, and while the final number “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll” is defiant, “Memphis” ends more hopefully than happily.
The book by playwright Joe DiPietro (whose work includes “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and “Over the River and Through the Woods”) is smart, literate, and filled with characters of real depth. It makes its social and political points without preaching and sometimes without explicitly stating them at all. In one number, for example, a girls’ jump rope game becomes a metaphor for the ways in which musical integration paved the way for social integration—both an illustration and explanation of racism’s worst nightmare.
The music by Bon Jovi member David Bryan and lyrics by Mr. Bryan and Mr. DiPietro neatly pastiche period R&B, soul, and gospel without ever descending to imitation. They also advance the plot and illuminate character in ways that a good musical should.
The cast for this tour of “Memphis” is tremendously talented and solid, from the leads to the ensemble players. Bryan Fenkhart’s Huey is a wonderful mix of awkward geekiness and charm. As written, Huey is something of a tragic character, undone as much by his hubris and blindness to the evil around him as by the evil itself. Mr. Fenkhart is totally believable in both Huey’s light and dark modes, and he sings and dances up a storm.
Felicia Boswell is just stunning as the fictional Felicia, with tremendous passion, a great set of pipes, and graceful dance moves. Her big solo “Colored Woman” brought the house down.
Quentin Earl Darrington turns Delray Farrell into a force of nature, vocally strong and dramatically compelling. As Gator, Delray’s quiet bartender and overall voice of reason, Rhett George cuts a sympathetic figure, and when the character finds his soulful tenor voice it’s a revelation.
Will Man is also charming as Bobby, a janitor at the station where Huey gets his first break. A big, stocky guy, Mann doesn’t look like a dancer, so when he broke out some incredibly fluid moves in “Big Love” the audience loved it to pieces. Something very similar happened when Julie Johnson, as Mama Calhoun, sings of how hearing a black church choir made her see the error in her racist ways in “Change Don’t Come Easy”. Her dancing and gospel shouting were so unexpected and so spot on as to be irresistible.
There are many other fine performances in this company, including Kent Overshown as Reverend Hobson and “Wailin’ Joe” (a composite of James Brown, Little Richard, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and William Parry as Mr. Simmons, the radio station owner who gives Huey his big break and tries to save him from his own ego. Many of the members take on multiple roles and do so with such authority that the cast seems larger than it really is.
And brother, can they dance! Director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Sergio Trujillo have packed “Memphis” with nearly non-stop movement, including some production numbers so spectacular and filled with interesting details that they’re impossible to fully appreciate in one sitting. Some of the steps for the dancers in Huey’s local TV show look more like 1980 than 1950, granted, but it’s all done with such style and grace that it hardly matters. Nobody is gaining weight doing this show.
Paul Tazewell’s costumes bring the 1950s to life and reflect the change in the characters’ lives. David Gallo’s sets vividly suggest the rapidly shifting locations and are filled with neat details. The look of the various radio studios is especially realistic. I’m sure I’ve used some of that equipment in my time.
“Memphis” deals with adult themes in a difficult period in American history and there are a few brief but disturbing scenes of violence, so it might not be appropriate for very young children, but once they’re into the double digits I think they’ll appreciate it. The show runs around two hours and forty-five minutes including intermission and I was totally captivated by every minute of it. Unlike a number of recent big-budget Broadway shows, “Memphis” hasn’t got an ounce of padding. It’s a lean entertainment machine.
What it all comes down to is this: You've got to see this show. It's compelling theatre, great entertainment, and just one of the best darn musicals I’ve seen in quite a while. At a point in our nation’s history when a depressingly large percentage of the electorate is trying to pretend that racism is a thing of the dim past and really wasn’t all that bad anyway, it’s also a much-needed history lesson. Sometimes it takes great fiction to tell the truth. “Memphis” is great fiction. See it now.
And remember: “And if you listen to the beat and hear what's in your soul / You'll never let anyone steal your rock 'n roll.”
“Memphis” plays the Fox through May 13. For more information, you may visit fabulousfox.com or call 314-534-1678.