It was something of a surprise when the unpretentious Memphis beat out both the indy-rock spectacle American Idiot and the afrobeat fantasia Fela! for the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical: the latter two musicals had generated a lot more buzz (if not box-office receipts) than this modest, earnest, and generally enjoyable tale of one city—and two races. But if Memphis somewhat pales besides other American musical explorations of race and rock—both Hairspray and Dreamgirls spring to mind—the current touring production presents the material to good advantage. Memphis is the sort of show worth seeing once, but not twice; like Oakland, there’s not quite enough there, there.
The book and lyrics (by Joe DiPietro, of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change fame) and music (by David Bryan, keyboardist of the band Bon Jovi) are clearly indebted to the times, tunes, and threads of Memphis in the 1950s, a city far more inspirational than, say, Indianapolis. The plot follows the struggles of eccentric Tennessean Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), a white disk jockey committed to spinning the music of local black musicians who have been unfairly banned from the airwaves. After a series of serio-comic reversals, Huey finds himself an improbably successful entrepreneur in the entertainment business: he’s even a possible national rival to a certain fresh-faced Richard—better yet, Dick—Clark.
But melodramatic convention has Huey fall for African-American singer Felicia (a terrific Felicia Boswell), a big no-no in the pre-Civil Rights South: both Felicia and Huey must negotiate the animosity of relatives and citizens even as Felicia’s career otherwise blossoms. Bryan’s score boasts some nifty numbers—the dizzying gospel tune “Make Me Stronger” brings down the roof in Act I—but there’s also a certain sameness (even blandness) to the rhythm-and-blues score, particularly in the evening’s weaker second act. As for the leads, I actually preferred this touring production’s Huey (Bryan Fenkart) to Chad Kimball’s (Tony-nominated) turn on Broadway: for some, Kimball’s odd vocal mannerisms sounded a lot like George W. Bush, which is enough to spoil anyone's evening. Boswell is simply dynamite all the time; Julie Johnson (as the deeply-conflicted Mama) gets a break-out moment in the second act. Dancing is strong and vigorous across the board, and director Christopher Ashley moves things along as briskly as he might.
The musical’s construction remains a problem, however. Sometimes, it’s just the little stuff: the production number “Radio” is intended to show how the, um, radio is bringing together white and black teenagers, but it’s a strangely choreographed piece (by Sergio Trujillo) that elongates the first act without adding much new to the story. Sometimes, it’s bigger: Huey’s eleven o'clock number, “Memphis Lives in Me,” seems calculated to give the audience a big, titular ballad—but the psychology of the lyrics is completely at odds with the larger narrative. (For instance, Huey croons that Memphis is “Like a friend who always stands by me.” Sure, if friends routinely smack you with a baseball bat, and then stand by you.)
The physical production—with set design by David Gallo—seems somewhat scaled down for the road, but it’s serviceable enough; there’s also some clever and attractive lighting (by Howell Binkley) for the evening’s closing number, a bittersweet epilogue to the Memphis of the 50s (“Steal Your Rock’n’Roll”). Though I noticed a few empty seats after intermission, most of the folks at the Majestic were on their feet at the end of the evening, particularly during Fenkart and Boswell’s well-deserved bows. While the score of Memphis won’t be shuffling onto my iPod anytime soon, the present production is a sincere attempt at tackling America’s disgraceful legacy of racism, refracted through the prisms of mass media and art. We at the Wicked Stage give it a “B” — for blues’n’rhythm.