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In the pre-dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, ‘Memphis’ bundles daring hearts in a jumping love story

Submitted by on Nov 25, 2011 – 9:47 am

Review: “Memphis” by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, presented by Broadway in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Dec. 4 *****

By Lawrence B. Johnson

The edgy, soul-driven musical “Memphis,” on a national tour stopover at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, is a significant addition to the Broadway repertoire in several respects. The bluesy score by composer David Ryan is infectious to the point of irresistible, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography jumps.

Above all, however, book writer Joe DiPietro, who also co-authored the lyrics with Ryan, has fashioned a compelling drama about one white man’s maniacal passion for black music, in a time and place where white and black cultures did not mix.

“Memphis” took the 2010 Tony Award for best musical. When I saw it on Broadway I wondered whether its distinctive energy, flamboyance, tension and accent could ever be replicated. Trust me, the wonderful touring company in town has “Memphis” down to a pulsating T. What’s more, this production’s crazy-quilt collection of characters comes to life – troubled, aspiring, daunted or dangerous – with a precision and depth that may even outstrip the New York show I encountered those many months ago.

Memphis in 1951 was the fertile ground and predawn of one of the most profound cultural shifts in American history, the eruption of black music – “race” music as it was known in those days – into the popular mainstream, thanks largely to the arrival of a young singer called Elvis Presley. But “Memphis” is pre-Elvis. There has been no break-through, no musical melding. White folks don’t go to the black clubs down on Beale Street. Then Huey Calhoun comes along, about the same time the curtain rises on this remarkable look-back.

Huey, played with a child-like innocence and compulsive willfulness by Bryan Fenkart, loves the unbuttoned rhythms and authentic expression of black music. One night, lingering outside a club on Beale Street, he hears a girl singer whose honeyed voice lures him right through the door – to the shock and alarm of the exclusively black crowd he discovers there. But black-white isn’t even a hyphen’s worth of concern to Huey. He’s here for the music. He explains that he just had to know if the singer, called Felicia, was as beautiful as the song she was singing.

The answer, in the gorgeous form of Felicia Boswell, is a ringing Yes. (And yes, the character and the actress have the same name.) “Memphis” is their story. For Huey, the idea of boundaries — especially those suggested by discretion and mature judgment — does not exist. He falls head over heels in love with Felicia. Huey is a very-small-time radio deejay and manages to get the girl’s voice on the air. The white kids of Memphis flip out. As Felicia warms up to Huey, things go from cozy to serious and inevitably to catastrophic. People try to warn him, but Huey pushes on. People get scared; Huey pushes harder. People get hurt.

Fenkart’s expansive, ever-optimistic (or just oblivious) Huey is more than a fascinating character, more than charming. He’s a paradox, broad-minded in the conventional sense but fatally narrow-minded in any functional respect. He’s the soul of sociability and yet, again in the conventional sense, not well socialized at all. He is the archetypal genius-fool, an unvarnished wit capable of creating and destroying by the same unchecked means. “Memphis” would be a powerful play with no music at all.

But it is awash in great, authentically styled Ryan-DiPietro songs, starting with Felicia’s revelatory “The Music of My Soul” and extending through her candid “Colored Woman” and wistful “Someday.” For the story’s critical premise to work – that this young singer is made of star stuff – we have to believe Felicia has constellation written all over her. With Boswell, that’s no problem. She positively sparkles.

And she’s by no means alone. Time and again, “Memphis” serves up spectacular numbers by characters on the periphery. I mean wowser show-stoppers where you least expect them. Don’t look for examples here. I’m not going to spoil your fun. I will tell you the depth of this touring troupe is exceptional. The dance numbers also are terrific and plentiful, the costumes smart and sexy.

“Memphis” is a beautiful show, disturbing and thrilling. It’s as well crafted as “Chicago,” but more serious. I didn’t know what my second impression would be. Now I can’t wait to see it again.

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Photo credits and captions: Below: Home page and top: When Huey (played by Bryan Fenkart, center) takes black music to the radio and TV mainstream, kids from both races kick up their heels. Top right: Felicia (played by  Felicia Boswell) electrifies Huey, who’s oblivious to the era’s social constraints.  Middle right: Felecia Boswell is the irresistible talent who plays a star in the making.  (Photos by Paul Kolnik) Below: “Memphis” video clip from the national tour opening in Memphis.

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