A talented cast, stirring vocals, athletic dance numbers and vigorous direction supply crowd-pleasing elements in the lively new musical, “Memphis,” as evidenced by the waves of appreciation coming off the audience. But there’s also a nagging predictability to this story of a white DJ who brings rockin’ rhythm and blues from black Beale Street to the mainstream in 1950s Tennessee. The show is entertaining but synthetic, its telepic plotting restitching familiar threads from “Hairspray” and “Dreamgirls,” while covering fictitious ground adjacent to that of recent biopic “Cadillac Records.”
The performances in Christopher Ashley’s production are all writ large, but they are not without soul or sincerity. That makes you wish the actors had better material than writer and co-lyricist Joe DiPietro’s superficial book, which connects the dots in such a perfunctory way — especially in the weak second act — that the outcome of pretty much every scene is evident the minute it gets going.
The score by Bon Jovi founding member and keyboardist David Bryan is generic but well-crafted, with toe-tapping beats and driving horn lines, as well as a keen ear for rock, pop, blues and gospel idioms, even if they do play fast and loose with the era. Trouble is, the songs are more imitative than inspired. They can’t escape the feel of accomplished pastiche — albeit with frequent concessions to a more modern brand of big-belt diva anthem — and the cliche-drenched lyrics limit any emotional transport.
Loosely based on pioneering DJ Dewey Phillips, Huey Calhoun is played by Chad Kimball as an out-there caricature that takes some getting used to. The formerly baby-faced actor from “Lennon” and the 2002 “Into the Woods” is looking a bit more weathered. He appears to be channeling Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade,” with George W. Bush and Jerry Lee Lewis, adopting a nervous physicality that’s more hick than hipster. Yet it kind of works. He’s an odd duck, but his reckless-rebel streak seems authentic, and his passion for black music and for one black singer in particular is consuming.
That would be Felicia (Montego Glover). Huey first hears her bumping out gutsy opener “Underground” in a dive bar run by her protective big brother Delray (J. Bernard Calloway). “Ain’t no white folks here — cause they too damn scared!” sings Delray, but Huey more or less wins the wary bunch over with the bluesy “The Music of My Soul.”
The physical elements at times seem crowded on the Shubert stage, but David Gallo’s set effectively blends dusty window panes and crumbling plaster work with video detailing to evoke multiple locations, from Delray’s joint below street level to the shabby home Huey shares with his God-fearing waitress Mama (Cass Morgan) to the radio station where the illiterate kid finagles a DJ job. Paul Tazewell’s flavorful period costumes and Howell Binkley’s full-bodied lighting contribute to give the show a vibrant dynamic.
Act one zips along as Huey starts spinning “race” records for a parched white youth audience previously being fed Patti Page and Roy Rogers. Where DiPietro’s book could have used more robust development is in the mutual attraction and cautious beginnings of Huey’s relationship with Felicia, whose singing career he helps kickstart. Much as Kimball’s characterization is compelling and based at least in part on Phillips’ unconventional style and yokel manner, Huey is such a gonzo guy it’s hard to perceive what sleek beauty Felicia might see in him. Nor is she portrayed as sufficiently career-driven to latch on for professional gain.
That lack of emotional grounding means when violent rednecks and anti-integration laws threaten to keep them apart, the audience is more keyed into the broader social injustice than the romance. Such obstacles weigh heavily in the sluggish second act, as Felicia gets a recording offer in New York, and uncompromising Huey bristles at the terms of his transition from Memphis TV to a national platform. As the dramatic stakes get higher, the book becomes more sketchy and unconvincing.
However, the actors frequently lend conviction that’s absent in the writing. Both Kimball and Glover have stayed with the show since incarnations as far back as 2003, as have Calloway and Derrick Baskin as a bartender rendered mute after watching his father get lynched. In DiPietro’s formulaic hands, that information serves only to telegraph a heart-tugging moment later on, just as we know uptight Mama is bound to loosen up sooner or later. But most of the performers dignify their stereotypes.
Glover, in particular, elevates her role with her powerful pipes and tender-tough attitude. One of the survivors of last summer’s unwatchable “The Wiz” revival, James Monroe Iglehart scores big with the crowd as a rotund janitor who seizes the spotlight with the boisterous number, “Big Love.”
Many of the featured singers are music legends or identifiable facsimiles of them (Perry Como, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, the Platters) and Ashley introduces them via inventive staging. He chronicles the tentative steps toward breaking down black-white barriers in a Baptist church or on a street where girls are jumping rope with a tidy economy. And while it grows repetitive, Sergio Trujillo’s muscular choreography and the high-energy dance ensemble provide a big assist in maintaining some momentum even when the storytelling flags.