News Column

'Memphis' isn't deep but its vocalists soar

May 8, 2013

YellowBrix

May 08--Memphis, the 2010 Tony winner for best musical, reveals its big, dumb heart early on in its brief run at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

Huey Calhoun (played with goofball charm by Bryan Fenkart) is an idealistic white boy in deeply-segregated Memphis of the early 1950s who is drawn to the soulful, electrifying music he hears streaming out of an all-black club, Delray's, on Memphis' famed Beale Street.

He knows that the music he hears there -- gritty rhythm and blues -- is just the tonic to awaken young people who have been lulled into a "Perry Como coma" by the bland music radio DJs must play. Calhoun, whose character was inspired by pioneering DJs like "Daddy-O" Dewey Phillips from Tennessee who gave Elvis Presley's debut 45 its first public airing, talks his way into selling records at the local department store, a sleepy space where an old woman sells about two singles an hour by acts like Como.

Calhoun figures if he can play records in-store and act like a DJ, he can move more product. The skeptical store manager offers him a job but only if he can sell five discs. Calhoun sells 29 to delighted young white people with his antics and his playing of "race records."

Naturally, he's canned by the racist manager and, right there, Memphis makes you go: "Hold on. Huey didn't manufacture those records. The store had them in stock for the purpose of selling them. This makes no sense."

Stop it. Think too much about the culture of segregated 1950s America and the trailblazing black music that led to rock 'n' roll, and the shallow Memphis will leave you longing for substance. Memphis is a surface-deep history lesson, but its exuberant, let's-put-on-a-show zest provides amusing entertainment.

Enjoy Calhoun badgering his way into gigs as a radio DJ and madcap host of a regional pre- American Bandstand TV show where his showcasing of "race records" makes the initially dismayed white station owners wealthy. Nothing like rolling in the green on the back of black musicians to make the white characters in Memphis turn tolerant.

Calhoun is also smitten with aspiring recording artist Felicia Ferrell (Felicia Boswell), but romance between a white man and black woman is forbidden. Joe DiPietro's book and David Bryan's lyrics predictably push familiar buttons without ever really tapping emotions. Christopher Ashley's hurried direction doesn't build tension.

Bryan, keyboardist for popular New Jersey rock band Bon Jovi, composes facsimiles of R&B for Memphis that, like Bon Jovi's rock music, is entertaining in a pinch. Unlike Bon Jovi, however, Memphis is graced with some amazing vocal talent that erupts out of nowhere on David Gallo's multilevel set.

Delray's mute barman Gator (Rhett George), traumatized into silence by his father's lynching, suddenly finds his voice on the rousing anthem, Say a Prayer, as he lets loose with a sustained, pitch-perfect note. Mama Gladys (Julie Johnson), largely a cartoon, unleashes some voice-shredding testifying on Change Don't Come Easy that would challenge Aretha Franklin in her prime. Boswell is a first-rate vocalist, especially on the smoldering Colored Woman and commercial Someday.

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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(c)2013 The Miami Herald

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