Opening Nights: Memphis

Sizzling music, but the story's lost its grit.

Memphis is all grown up now. The musical that debuted here in 2009 now returns from Broadway in a sparkling bus-and-truck showcase that bears none of the flaws of its early incarnation. As such, it's slick and surefooted, but it also sheds much of the grit and grits so vital to its story. Set in the segregated South at the dawn of rock 'n' roll, with an interracial romance at its center, this mainstreamed Memphis has snipped off anything extraneous that might cause an audience to think too much. What's left is plenty of skittering grease-on-a-hot-skillet soul music, little in the way of historical context.

The plot is loosely based on the life of disc jockey and "race music" promoter Dewey Phillips, here called Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart). Huey falls in love not only with the sounds he hears roiling up from an underground Beale Street bar, but their personification, Felicia Farrell (Felicia Boswell). His passion sets him on a collision course with both fame and the race lines of their day.

The songs, by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and lyricist Joe DiPietro, provide a survey of musical styles from the period. There's gospel (brilliantly expressed in "Make Me Stronger"), gossamer pop, and the kind of R&B that slips in through the ear and quickly seduces the lower extremities. The music has so much swagger—so much heat and beat—that the auditorium needs seat belts.

Replacing a Broadway cast that helped the show earn four Tonys, including best musical, this ensemble delivers a baker's-dozen thrilling performances under Christopher Ashley's direction. Yet compared to three years ago, when everyone who wasn't Huey or Felicia seemed a bigot, the racial divisions are now more muted. When the dread prospect of miscegenation is raised, some in the cast only appear perplexed, not aghast.

Bottom line: This ain't the Memphis that spawned rock 'n' roll. At all. But Memphis is one hell of a fine musical, and it does both Seattle and the 5th Avenue proud.

 
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