The sleek, stylish “Memphis” exemplifies the Broadway show tour done very right indeed. Having assembled a first-rate cast, original helmer Christopher Ashley and original choreographer Sergio Trujillo skillfully bring out the musical and thematic strengths of the surprise 2010 Tony winner while rendering its weaknesses mostly negligible. With no dollar visibly unspent, this fable of rock ‘n’ roll’s birth serves up plenty of melody and heart along with enough energy to light up its titular city.
Whatever “Memphis” may lack in accuracy and originality in detailing how fictional hayseed DJ Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) helped break the “race music” barrier on Beale Street in the mid 1950s, it makes up for in exhilarating metaphor.
The excitement of bringing juiced-up R&B to dulled white audiences is made palpable in Trujillo’s dance numbers, which build in heat to reflect the progress of racial integration. In Huey’s idealistic quest to win his lady fair, electric soul singer Felicia (Felicia Boswell), we feel millions’ yearning to set bigotry aside and just give love a chance.
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Librettist Joe DiPietro has sharpened the character arc since the tuner’s 2008 La Jolla premiere. As the music industry’s amalgam of black taste and white dollars really starts to take off, Huey’s pride blinds him to its potential. He’s left behind, the way so many other innovators have been jettisoned when their creations got too big. Ashley wisely has the manic, hyperjivey Fenkart take it down a notch when his world comes crashing down.
That world of sensual interiors is extravagantly captured in David Gallo’s sets and Howell Binkley’s smokey lighting, and Paul Tazewell’s clothes look genuinely lived in, not merely well researched.
But none of it would matter if the score, by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and DiPietro, couldn’t persuade us of its power to move a generation. So closely do “Scratch My Itch” and “Underground” reflect the sound and spirit of 1950s funk — with surrogates for Fats Domino and Little Richard popping up to provide witty signaling — that at first hearing they instantly win the kind of affection usually reserved for actual favorite oldies.
Many numbers are oversung as if this were an “American Idol” final, though they achieve their purpose of setting off audience cheers. If, as the song goes, “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night,” then “Memphis” allows us all to feel the music of our soul any night it’s performing.