If ever there was a show to see specifically for the performances onstage — and not the actual material being delivered — Memphis is it.
Now at the Palace Theatre at Playhouse Square, this Tony Award-winning musical by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics) is studded with actors who sing, dance, and act up a serious storm.
But the story and the songs themselves, while trying to evoke the gutsy rush of early rock & roll, feel like faint and mostly bland imitations of the real thing. Indeed, it is remarkable that in a show about electrifying R&B and rock music, there is not one tune you leave humming to yourself or longing to hear again.
Despite the squishiness of the material, you will find yourself wanting to spend the evening — maybe even the entire next day — with the cast: a talented and focused group of performers who leave it all on the stage. In addition, the dance numbers are choreographed with crackling energy by Sergio Trujillo.
The central idea revolves around a fictionalized biography of Dewey Phillips, who was a wildly popular disc jockey in that Tennessee city in the mid-1950s. In this telling, the man is called Huey Calhoun and is an illiterate white boy who happens to love black music.
When Huey first enters Delray's, the black nightclub named after the owner, the clientele are uneasy and start to leave. But Huey changes their minds as he croons his love for their tunes in "The Music of My Soul."
This moment echoes the real life experience of Buddy Holly and the Crickets when they famously performed at the Apollo Theater in 1957. Of course, the disconnect here is that Huey is not a rock singer; he only sings because that's what people do in musicals.
Huey quickly becomes the Pied Piper of funk. Working as a clerk in a department-store record department, he converts all the uptight white people to sexually seductive black music in a trice. Then he sneaks into a booth at the local white radio station and starts playing one of his favorite 45s. Needless to say, the redneck town goes bonkers for it.
If all this sounds fairly predictable, it is. Even Huey's attraction to Delray's sister Felicia, who sings at the club, seems preordained by the Broadway musical gods. But Huey's march to fame and fortune is enhanced immeasurably by the actors involved.
Bryan Fenkart is exceptional as lanky, geeky music freak Huey, who just wants to show his love for the tunes being created by black artists. Capturing some of the original Dewey's machine-gun patter and his wildly ad-libbed radio commercials, Fenkart fashions an adorably off-center character that is the freshest element in the show.
Clearly, the hardest-working person under the lights is Felicia Boswell, who sings often and brilliantly as Felicia. She nails every musical mode — from pounding gospel to mellow blues ballad to the empowering anthem "Colored Woman."
Providing excellent support are Quentin Earl Darrington as the powerfully voiced Delray, and the Be Black Trio (Alfie Parker Jr., Jarvis D. McKinley, and Justin Prescott), who tear it up on a couple of occasions.
But the major weakness of the production's structure is seen in the song "Change Don't Come Easy," in which Huey's formerly racist mom sings of her magical transformation after one visit to a black church. Indeed, her turnabout — and all the changes in this quasi-fairy tale — come much too easily, even by the low standards of Broadway.
But the performers here carry the day, bringing home the passion and authenticity that the play itself often lacks.