"Memphis" has been making audiences jump and jive ever since its world premiere at TheatreWorks in 2004.
Since then, this raucous birth of rock 'n' roll musical has raised the roof on Broadway; it also won four Tony awards, including best musical. And now, the exuberant crowd-pleaser has strutted back to the Bay Area for a victory lap with Broadway San Jose.
A rollicking collaboration between Joe DiPietro ("I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change") and composer-keyboardist David Bryan of Bon Jovi fame, "Memphis" is an unpretentious rhythm and blues foot-stomper that's big on heart and passion and short on subtlety. While critics, including yours truly, have dinged the show for its formulaic aspects, audiences can't help embracing its celebration of a heroic white DJ who dared to bring "race music" to the masses in 1950s Tennessee. A Hollywood movie version is even in the works. That speaks to the infectious appeal of the show, which runs through Sunday in its Broadway San Jose presentation.
Inspired by the life of disc jockey Dewey "Daddy-O" Phillips, a radio legend, "Memphis" still feels like it should be a little gutsier, a little rawer, since it celebrates a music pioneer who wasn't afraid to rebel against the mainstream. Instead, the musical sticks to a fairly tame evocation of the racial tensions of pre-Civil Rights-era South.
The second act also still drags a bit, but "Memphis" has also deepened since its debut. The love story cuts closer to the bone, the choreography pops harder, the ending lands more deftly, and there's no denying the charge of numbers such as "Memphis Lives in Me" and "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll."
For this national touring production, Bryan Fenkart steps into the shoes of smooth-talker Huey Calhoun. A high school dropout who can't read, he has street smarts enough to know a cultural revolution when he hears one. Fenkart may lack some of the reckless bravado of Chad Kimball, who originated the role, but he nails the character's goofy charm and the heat of anthemic numbers such as "The Music of My Soul."
Not content with the sanitized tunes usually allowed on the radio, Huey cuts the crooners and pushes the envelope by giving black musicians airtime. Seduced by the wailing blues of Beale Street, he falls for sultry songstress Felicia (Felicia Boswell). Boswell, for the record, is the one who really sets this musical on fire with her scorching rendition of "Colored Woman" and the delicacy she brings to "Someday."
We've heard much of this story before ("Dreamgirls," "Hairspray") but there's something irresistible about the energy of "Memphis." Sergio Trujillo's choreography wittily captures the movement of a society caught in the transition between uptight and down and dirty. The pastiche score slides from blues and funk to pop so smoothly, it's hard to resist the tug of the beat. Many of the best songs will remind you of a sound, such as Motown, that you may have forgotten you yearn for.
While this ensemble may not quite match the brass of the original cast (from Kimball and Montego Glover to James Monroe Iglehart), there are several standout performances. Fenkart shines in the final scenes, when Huey loses his battle with the status quo. Julie Johnson tears it up as Huey's steely mama in "Change Don't Come Easy," and Horace V. Rogers lends gravitas to Felicia's weary brother Delray, who won't stand by as his sister pays the price for Huey's bravery.
If the show seems to shortchange the complexities of race and class in America, the actors here work extremely hard at giving every character a sense of dignity. Certainly Christopher Ashley's direction has undeniable pizazz and polish. "Memphis" may still lack the soul the subject matter cries out for, but it definitely delivers in terms of sheer electricity.
Presented by Broadway
Where: San Jose Center for the Performing Arts,
255 Almaden Blvd.
Running time: 2 hours,
30 minutes (one
Tickets: $20-$82, 408-792-4111, http://broadwaysanjose.com