It’s hardly a revelation that music in post-WWII America was as segregated as society. To tread this familiar turf, a show must have something special going for it: a compelling story, captivating songs, charismatic characters. But for these you’ll need to travel further than “Memphis,” a new musical with big ambitions at the North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, Mass.
The profile of the creative team has upped expectations for this production. Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) wrote the book and lyrics. Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan makes his bow as stage composer. And the director and co-lyricist is Gabriel Barre, helmer of Off Broadway’s “The Wild Party” and the tour of “Cinderella.”
The show is based on the career of white deejay Dewey Phillips of the pre-Elvis Memphis of the late 1940s and ’50s. Here named Huey Calhoun and somewhat fictionalized, he is a rebel who loves the rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues music played in the black clubs on the other side of town.
On his radio show, Huey nixes the music of Roy Rogers and Patti Page in favor of the tracks from this new soul train. He also promotes a talented black female singer, but when their relationship becomes too public, Huey is beaten by a bunch of racist thugs.
In the second act, things turn even darker for “crazy little Huey,” who now has a local TV show. He pops pills (for the pain caused by his beating), and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic and delusional. Huey blows his chance for a national TV career by inexplicably featuring musical numbers that celebrate the joys of sex and marijuana. (Dick Clark gets the job.)
The downward spiral accelerates as a bitter Huey is reduced to a life of pills, booze and living with his mother. But since this makes for a dreary finale, a group of Huey’s old friends throw him a party to prove he hasn’t been forgotten. The upbeat end at least allows the clearly entertained audience to exit to a lively beat.
Chad Kimball, Milky White in the Broadway revival of “Into the Woods,” has the energy and pipes but not the charm — or material — to make Huey more than a manic go-getter. Montego Glover, as Huey’s girlfriend Felicia Farrell, shows she has the musical chops to be her own dreamgirl. But their romance never strikes sparks, so its ending is more bittersweet than devastating.
Felicia is severely underwritten, as are most of the roles for the talented but underutilized supporting cast. DiPietro’s book too often embraces cliches (“Stop filling my head with dreams that won’t come true”), and the lyrics are likewise undistinguished.
The music by the classically trained Bryan reveals a sure hand at the craft of pop, rock and legit. He nicely evokes the musical spirit of the era.
Cynthia Thomas does a delicious down-and-dirty rendition of “Honey Loving”; Wayne Pretlow makes the most of “Two Minutes of Your Love”; Kimball and J. Bernard Calloway have fun with the easy target of “Dick Clark”; and Glover graces everything she sings. “I Can’t Stop This Dance” evokes the emotionally satisfying “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from “Hairspray,” a show that more successfully explores the division of pop and “race” music.
Director Barre does a solid job throughout, keeping the show spinning as fast as a stack of 45s. Pamela Scofield’s costumes capture the period with style and substance. Phil Monat is skilled at creating mood and lighting the theater’s far-flung spaces.
But the show needs a stronger spine. DiPietro and Bryan haven’t found a way to make the music go beyond the generic, and they haven’t found a way to dramatize the cause of the central character’s self-destruction, beyond cliche. An attempt at musically confronting his demons in a long drug-induced fantasy scene is weird and misguided.
The creators should get credit for not trading grit for “Grease,” and with some tinkering, the musical could find a future in some regional venues. (It will return in January to TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Calif., where it had its initial reading.)
But the big-time remains elusive for this Memphis deejay, who fell from grace even before there was a Graceland.