Memphis is that rarest of Broadway musicals. It’s not a jukebox musical. It’s not based on a movie. It's — surprise! — completely original.
And if that’s all it had going for it, it would still deserve acclaim. But Memphis is more: a fresh, funny show with a dazzling score and vibrant choreography. And while the story doesn’t break any new ground, it does try to say something meaningful about race relations, and has a whole lot of fun doing it.
When the show premiered on Broadway in 2009, it was an instant star-making vehicle for its two leads: Montego Glover and Chad Kimball. The national tour, which just landed at the Buell Theatre on Tuesday for a two-week run, didn’t snag either of those two, but it found a pair of powerhouse replacements in Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart.
This four-time Tony Award winner is set in the 1950s, a time when the middle of the radio dial was reserved for mainstream musicians like Perry Como, and that exciting new sound that would eventually be known as rhythm and blues, but was then called “race music,” was relegated to the far-right side of the dial.
Enter Huey Calhoun (Fenkart), a stoop-shouldered goofball who seems destined for mediocrity until he wangles a job spinning records at one of those white radio stations. OK, “wangle” isn’t exactly the right word. He steals it, locking himself into the control booth while the regular DJ is on bathroom break.
The station manager tries to throw him out. But when the city’s white teenagers hear the finger-snapping, hip-swiveling tunes he’s playing, the station’s phone starts lighting up like a Christmas tree. The station manager has found a gold mine. And Huey has found a home.
But it’s in the underground clubs on Beale Street — a place “where there ain’t no daytime” — that Huey finds his real home. And his first real love, a gorgeous African-American singer named Felicia Farrell (Boswell). Her hard-nosed brother Delray owns the club, and he’s determined to make her a star. The last thing he needs is some white fool hanging around his club, stirring up trouble. But when Huey promises to get her on the radio if she can scrape together the money for a record, Delray agrees to work with him.
The scrappy Felicia is a much harder sell. But she eventually falls in love with the crazy white boy.
"Do you know what the hell you're doing?" a friend later asks him.
"I never know what the hell I'm doing," Huey says. "I just do it."
Of course, this is the pre-civil rights South, and even if music has the power to break down walls, there will always be those who fight to keep those walls up. Unfortunately, many of those are armed with clubs and baseball bats.
As he did in his off-Broadway megahit I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, bookwriter Joe DiPietro too often goes for the easy laugh. (If I see one more show in which a character is embarrassed to be caught “air-jamming," I’ll tear my few remaining hairs out of my head.) But it doesn’t matter, because it’s the music that makes this musical soar.
Surprisingly so, because the songs were composed by David Bryan, a Broadway newbie better known as the longtime keyboardist for Bon Jovi. The songs capture the flavor of the time — a little rockabilly here, a little gospel there — but with a modern sensibility that makes them sound fresh, new and glorious.
The stellar cast gives every note of these songs their due. But it’s Boswell who, with her unstoppable voice, nearly brings the house down again and again. There’s a particularly memorable moment when she pauses to take a breath after a power note: In the silence, it seems as though the entire audience is holding its own breath. Then it gets knocked out of us as we’re slammed by a bigger and even more powerful note. Pure musical gold.
I’ve also got to mention Julie Johnson, a real standout who plays Huey’s mother Mama. With her perfect comic timing, she manages to make her bigoted redneck character completely lovable. But the biggest surprise comes in her showcase song, the insanely catchy “Change Don’t Come Easy,” when she flaunts a dirty growl of which the great Wanda Jackson would have been proud.
Yes, this kind of musical-roots story has been told a hundred times before. And that might fool you into thinking you know right where this one is headed. Trust me, you don’t.
And in the end, that may be the biggest surprise of this refreshingly surprising show.
Through October 21, Tuesdays through Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Special Thu matinee on October 18 at 2pm, Buell Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St., Denver, Tickets, $25 to $105; call 800/641-1222 or visit denvercenter.org for information.