Review: ‘Memphis’ a simplistic retelling of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll

Felicia Boswell stars in "Memphis."
(Paul Kolnik)

In one of the numerous bits of B movie dialogue that pervade “Memphis,” the 2010 Tony-winning musical now playing a two-week run at the Pantages Theatre, the show’s female protagonist, Felicia Farrell, explains that “Rock ‘n’ roll is just black people’s blues sped up.”

But this awkward Broadway hit, set in segregated Memphis, Tenn., in the 1950s, could be called 1980s arena rock slowed down, with songs that rage against racism and plea for tolerance in the worst way.

Despite the Tony awards that Joe DiPietro won for his book and original score (the latter award shared with Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan), this energetic and well-intentioned show falls back on the clichés of previous pop entertainments that have attempted to point up social injustice.

A hard-working cast does its best with the limited charms it has to work with. The cast is led by Felicia Boswell as promising young black singer Felicia and Bryan Fenkart as Huey Calhoun, the white radio DJ who is as smitten with her as he is with her singing after he sneaks into a black club owned by her overprotective brother, Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington).

DiPietro demonstrates from the outset that he’s stacking the deck emotionally, opening with an anonymous white radio DJ stiffly back-announcing the innocuous pop tune he’s just played: “And that was Whitey White & the White Tones with ‘Whiter Than You'….”

It’s intended as a broad send-up of the often colorless pop music that dominated the charts and radio airwaves in America beforerock ‘n’ rollexploded in the mid-'50s, but it’s emblematic of the simplistic way in which “Memphis” takes on its subject: Whites are clueless and lack a hip bone in their rigid bodies, while blacks hold the key to all that is cool — to the degree that the ebullient company belts out “Everybody Wants to Be Black on Saturday Night” in the first act.

Huey and Felicia must contend with family members who staunchly oppose any romantic inclinations as well as with bigoted townspeople, who deliver the show’s most intense moments when a small mob violently reacts to their budding relationship.

There’s grist for something real here, but DiPietro and Bryan repeatedly retreat to the lowest common denominator in script-writing and songwriting. We know that Huey’s mother, Gladys (not coincidentally sharing the name of Elvis Presley’s mother), eventually will come around, but it’s hard not to cringe when she announces to Huey that she’s visited the black gospel church he touts on his radio show: “You were right about one thing,” she says. “Colored people sing like white people can’t!”

As Gladys, Julie Johnson employs a bold and brassy set of pipes, but she goes over the top in Gladys’ transformation from small-minded bigot, in another of the Race Relations 101 songs, “Change Don’t Come Easy.”

The attitudinal shifts that do occur stem strictly from material gain: Gladys starts to change only when Huey, his radio show growing more successful all the time, delivers the keys to the snazzy new house he bought her. His glowering boss at the radio station starts to see the light when the ratings Huey generates translate into more advertising dollars.

That ties in with some fleeting references to the issue of cultural imperialism, expressed by Delray when Huey tells him that this music he loves so much is the music in his soul. “It’s not the music of your soul, it’s the music of my soul, and my soul don’t want yours stealin’ it!”

Felicia gets her “I’ve Got to Be Me” moment in the second act with “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails,” which has more to do with Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey 1990s R&B; vocal histrionics than with anything that came out of Memphis 30 and 40 years earlier.

Fenkart is more problematic. He effectively gets across Huey’s genuine enthusiasm for music that’s been regarded as forbidden fruit. But in attempting to convey the disparity between his character and the African American world he longs to be part of, Fenkart adopts an exaggerated hick twang that is more cartoonish than evocative.

The Huey Calhoun character is based loosely on Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, a real-life champion of black music at a time and place when it was risky to promote it. But this show, which juggles ersatz gospel, primal R&B; (“Scratch My Itch”) and Motown-style pop, was designed for audiences on Broadway, not for anyone at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is responsible for a major portion of the adrenaline the show manages to generate, and David Gallo’s scenic design allows director Christopher Ashley’s action to flow efficiently from the underground setting of Delray’s club to the retail store where we first meet Huey as a clumsy stock clerk to the radio station where he finds his calling.

The grand finale, in which everybody pretty much figures out how we all can get along, proclaims, “If you listen to the beat and hear what’s in your soul/You’ll never let anyone steal your rock ‘n’ roll.”

The Pantages audience cheered. The only thing missing was a sea of Bic lighters hoisted high — and maybe a rousing encore of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”