Whites Mistreated in Memphis!

But everything else in this new race-and-rock musical is right on.

There are innumerable reasons why Memphis is considered the cradle of rock 'n' roll—there's Elvis, the one-two punch of Sun and Stax records, Beale Street and its thrumming music scene, and that's just for starters. It's also where many of the first records and artists crossed over from the black charts to the pop charts, courtesy of a few disc jockeys who dared to flout convention. One of them was a young B.B. King. Another was Dewey Phillips, upon whom the new 5th Avenue Theatre musical Memphis is based. Memphis is a Disneyland reimagining of the '50s R&B scene that opens just as jump blues (think Louis Jordan's "Caldonia" and "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie") is yielding to the earliest rock 'n' roll. In fact, one of the characters repeats the same mantra Little Richard has been reciting since 1956—"rock 'n' roll is only rhythm and blues played up-tempo." And with its whirling dervish of musical numbers (it's easy to imagine the unseen orchestra's brass section slinging their horns in tandem), Memphis captures all that lightning in a bottle and unleashes its kinetic energy at will. Here's the plotline: Ne'er-do-well Huey P. Calhoun (inspired by Phillips) can't seem to get even a pinky toe on the ladder of success until he stumbles into a Beale Street bar and encounters club owner Delray (J. Bernard Calloway) and his beautiful sister, Felicia (Montego Glover), whose voice is a blast furnace of sexual heat and pitch-perfect passion. Making her a star becomes his mission, and as a means to that end, he reinvents himself as a swivel-hipped, jive-talking DJ whose catchphrase, "Hockadoo," becomes a clarion call for the sleepy locals sick of Patti Page and Perry Como ditties. It's when his dream verges on coming true that Huey realizes he can't stop what he's put in motion. The girl he loves is black, after all—and now that she's about to sign a national recording contract, he's faced with a choice: Become her accessory and move North where interracial romance is tolerated, or remain in provincial Memphis without her as the toast of the teen set. There's a happy resolution, ultimately, but not before Huey has several very public meltdowns as he takes his love public. Most often, the music of Memphis sizzles like soul food on a hot griddle, largely due to Christopher Ashley's ringmasterly direction and a brand-new score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan. [This story has been corrected since it was first posted. It originally described Bryan as Bon Jovi's former keyboardist.] His gift is not only to understand Memphis as a musical crossroads, but to write fresh music from that intersection. He also gets the sensibilities of 2009, so that his score doesn't evoke so much how the music of that time sounded (nowhere near this polished or precise), but how it felt to be carried along by the jolt of black and white cultures finally colliding. There's joy, but danger and sex, too, and the thrill is palpable. It's rare to see this strong an ensemble of singers and dancers perform such exuberant material, and their enthusiasm is contagious enough to make you want to run to the lobby and buy a copy of a cast recording that doesn't even exist yet. The missteps occur when the white supporting players parade by. They're all squares, or racists, or racist squares, except Huey (played with balls-to-the-wall abandon by Seattle native Chad Kimball). Sure, that helps raise the dramatic tension for Felicia's triumph and Huey's rise, fall, and resurrection, but it becomes cloying, and after too long a dead nerve. When characters do make the transition from bigoted to enlightened, as does Huey's long-suffering Mom (Cass Morgan), it's actually painful to watch her "get down" in an attempt at soulfulness that rings less authentic than Michael Bublé singing speed metal: The voice is fine; the choice is every shade of wrong, and then some. It's easy to see where playwright/lyricist Joe DiPietro and Bryan feel most confident, because they provide a sumptuous helping of throw-down dance tunes and gospel-tinged ballads. But the show's ultimate success rests on paring these back, painful as that might be, thereby making the white folk more diverse and making sure that everything on the stage is either advancing the plot or defining a character's motivation. Like its namesake, Memphis is far from perfect. But as a work in progress, this production is a few major tweaks from making some musical history of its own. stage@seattleweekly.com

 
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