Beale Street — that mile-long black enclave leading east from the Mississippi, fabled as a home of the blues and cradle of rock ‘n’ roll — is the vibrant setting as “Memphis” explores America’s transitioning interest from a doggie in a window to a hound dog cryin’ all the time. There’s high-stepping talent and entertainment aplenty in Christopher Ashley’s La Jolla Playhouse co-production with Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater, but significant book problems and tonal inconsistency need addressing if this tribute to the era of Johnny B. Goode hopes to B. Great.
Rock emerged from its jazz and R&B cocoon through the efforts of white DJs like Alan Freed and Dewey Phillips, who brought the exuberant danceability of so-called race music to white ears. Librettist Joe DiPietro personalizes the saga by fictionalizing early shockjock Phillips into Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), a shiftless local yokel discovering his destiny while bucking the color bar in Beale Street niteries.
In one such scene — David Gallo’s set and Howell Binkley’s lighting create the perfect sense of down-low, energy-high heat — the would-be DJ develops a torch for torch singer Felicia (Montego Glover), sister of proprietor Delray (J. Bernard Calloway). Huey’s passion, however, runs higher for the music.
Retaining the likability honed as Milky-White in 2002’s “Into the Woods” revival, Kimball adds an intense hyperactivity, torso and legs in ceaseless motion as he proselytizes for the new, raw sound through naughty ad libs and a parent-infuriating playlist. Huey’s thumbs-up shout-out “Hockadoo!” paves the way for integrated musical tastes and — we’re led to hope — a society to match.
None of this would be remotely credible if the music didn’t live up to the hype, and “Memphis” justifies its gamble of eschewing actual period hits in favor of a brand-new score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan. Running the stylistic gamut from urban blues to gospel to classic rock, his tunes (somewhat overly orchestrated for the early ’50s) easily persuade us of their chart-topping potential.
In lyrics co-crafted with DiPietro, the period rebelliousness of the shattering finale “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll” co-exists comfortably with the sassy nonsense of “Scratch My Itch.”
Throughout, Sergio Trujillo’s multiracial dance ensemble masterfully dramatizes the revolution in present tense. Every dancer is an actor bringing emotional reality to the build, often with witty surrogates for Chuck Berry or the Platters stepping out to personify a song’s appeal. Racial integration occurs before our eyes to a throbbing backbeat.
“Memphis” does well by kids’ concerns but gets awfully wobbly when it turns to grownups. Huey’s rise and fall are pure cliche, with the libretto never hinting at the source of his problems. We can accept the career-stalling effect of kissing Felicia on local TV, but his self-destruction far predates that impulsive act. “Memphis” has yet to find a clear, logical character arc.
Moreover, the deck-stacking choice to portray all adult whites as effete stuffed shirts or fundamentalist nitwits diminishes danger as the story wanders into serious territory. When a town composed of Floyd the Barbers starts menacing a mixed-race couple on the sidewalk, the effect is ludicrous. When Mama Calhoun (an outrageously caricaturing Cass Morgan) smashes Felicia’s cherished possession, it just feels nasty.
“Hairspray” got away with one serious race-consciousness number, but the higher ambitions of “Memphis” are currently way out of sync with its campy musical comedy veneer.
Tuner’s African-American principals are solid across the board. Calloway lays out a furious, clear-eyed case for racial separation in “I Don’t Make the Rules,” and janitor-turned-Fats Domino clone Bobby (James Monroe Iglehart) sets the audience roaring with a rousing paean to “Big Love,” complete with split.
When all is said and done, “Memphis” may be most memorable as the breakout showcase for Glover, a winsome gamine with unforced emotional expressiveness, with which she invests her bluesy anthem “Colored Woman” with a bitter maturity beyond her years. In truth, women didn’t make a big impact in rock until the ’60s, but Glover’s power and pipes suggest stardom in any era.