As Memphis: The Musical begins and we see a Beale Street nightclub erupt into song and dance, it's impossible to tell who the star will be — everyone onstage has the fabulous costume, the larger-than-life presence, the dancing grace, the sex appeal, the voice. But when drop-dead-gorgeous Felicia (Felicia Boswell) enters, we take notice. And when she sings, she claims her place as leading lady. Her intense energy and the sheer weight of the ensemble's talent make the audience conscious of the fact that we're seated when clearly we should be on our feet. But by then we're immersed in the predictable-but-delightful allegory of the white protagonist, his big dreams and his immensely talented new "colored" friends.
Of course, those friends have dreams, too. Aside from segregated clubs and shady street corners, opportunities for black musicians in Memphis are few and far between. Women face even worse odds, so Felicia's content to sing in the nightclub her brother Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington) owns, among friends and regulars. When Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) has the nerve to cross Delray's threshold, he's blown away by young Felicia's talent. A lone white man in an all-black club, Huey vows to get Felicia's record on the radio, a promise met with rolled eyes and raised eyebrows.
Roll and raise they well might. Before he can deliver airplay for Felicia, Huey must get on the air. He persuades his boss at the department store to let him work in the record section for a day, promising to sell five platters in five minutes. He drops the needle on an uninspiring Perry Como LP, then thinks better of it and detonates the status quo with the "Scratch My Itch," a race record in the style of Little Richard. The buttoned-up department-store crowd goes bonkers, and Huey's boss returns to find the squares back-flipping and dancing on the counter. Huey sells 29 copies of the single — and he's fired on the spot for playing black music.
Having ascertained that white folks actually do like black music, Huey lands a job at a radio station and proceeds to usurp a provisional DJ gig by sneaking his beloved music on the air. Phones ring, listeners plead for more and visions of bucks galore blot out the station owner's backward beliefs.
At its best, Memphis is fun, buoyant and affirming. (OK, make that: At its best, Memphis is cliché.) But a predictable plot and an often gauche approach to sensitive subjects — such as Mama (Julie Johnson) becoming a caricature of black culture as she learns to accept it — undercuts its intent at nearly every turn. Based loosely on legendary Memphis DJ "Daddy-O" Dewey Phillips, the script makes the occasional sober foray into the sad state of race relations in the American South of the '50s. Stock plotting in a musical is forgivable; stock music, not so much. The songs, written by David Bryan, a (white) founding member of Bon Jovi, sound more like Broadway standards than race records. The music's not bad, but Memphis squanders the opportunity to revel in the rich sounds of its namesake town.
That said, thanks largely to the talents of Felicia Boswell, Memphis does possesses that certain something that made race records so revelatory to their new audience: It's got soul.
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