Black History Month has nearly ended, but the Tony Award-winning Memphis has opened at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts in time to share one more reminder of the courage and conflict that marked American race relations in the 1950s.
That might be a rather highfalutin’ way of describing a musical about a white Memphis disc jockey who fell for black music in general and one exquisite singer in particular. The major aim of Memphis, after all, is to entertain, not to offer heavy-duty enlightenment.
But the show’s fictional characters have their roots in real history, and playwright-lyricist Joe DiPietro (who also won a Tony for his efforts) weaves in lots of points about the violent manifestations of racism, ingrained prejudice, how profit can trump bias and how an individual’s stubborn disregard for consequences can help propel change.
Memphis features a Tony-winning score by Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan, who collaborated with DiPietro on the lyrics. Stylistically, the music ranges from blues to gospel to rock ‘n’ roll, evoking the sound and spirit of classic songs without achieving the timeless qualities of the inspiring originals.
The plot follows the unlikely love affair between white aspiring DJ Huey Calhoun (Joey Elrose) and a pretty, big-voiced black singer named Felicia Farrell (Jasmin Richardson). Since this is the early 1950s — in the South, no less — Huey’s casual attitude about openly expressing his desire for Felicia isn’t appreciated by many. Not by Delray (RaMond Thomas), an underground Beale Street club owner who happens to be Felicia’s protective older brother. Not by Mama Calhoun (Pat Sibley), a world-weary racist waitress. Not even by Felicia herself, who is far more cautious than her wild-man beau.
Huey, whose story cribs elements from the careers of real-life DJs Dewey Phillips and Alan Freed, is a Memphis radio pioneer in playing records by black artists — “race music,” as it was labeled in the industry — instead of covers by white singers. His fan base (and the station’s profits) booms, and he’s determined to take Felicia with him on his ride to fame and fortune.
Memphis doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the era. It portrays violence, everything from a white father slapping his daughter to thugs attacking Huey and Felicia. The audience gasps after the n-word gets uttered by a white character, and Huey’s mama nearly shatters Felicia’s career before it begins. Ugly.
However, for all those sociological trappings, Memphis is mostly focused on entertaining its audiences through powerhouse songs and flashy group dance numbers (Sergio Trujillo’s original choreography is re-created by Jermaine R. Rembert). Richardson, who has the pipes to make Felicia a convincing up-and-coming talent, earns the cheers she gets after her solo on Colored Woman. Avionce Hoyles’ previously silent Gator brings down the house with the moving Say a Prayer. Jerrial T. Young’s big-guy Bobby tears up the stage (and manages a cartwheel and back flip) while singing Big Love.
The white characters, the Calhoun family in particular, don’t fare as well. It’s more DiPietro’s fault than Elrose’s that crazy Huey’s charisma and success remain (as they did on Broadway) hard to fathom. He’s stubborn, reckless, driven and, as it happens, illiterate. Not a lot to root for there. Sibley has it rough, too. Her Mama Calhoun comes off as opportunistic as well as racist, and her singing voice is no more than passable.
The Broward Center’s opening night audience, it should be noted, really dug the show and the work of its non-union touring company. As entertainment, Memphis delivers; as a powerfully memorable history lesson, not so much.