Entertainment

January 5, 2012

Rhythm & blues & race make rebellion in 'Memphis'

Except for "Rock of Ages," the Blumenthal's 2011-12 Broadway Lights season has been a musical tour of the 1950s.

Except for "Rock of Ages," the Blumenthal's 2011-12 Broadway Lights season has been a musical tour of the 1950s.

That's when Charles Addams peaked as the cartoonist whose work inspired "The Addams Family," when the Jets and Sharks fought gang wars in "West Side Story," when the rockabilly legends comprising the "Million Dollar Quartet" had their one fabled night at Sun Studios. Now "Memphis" sweeps us back with an infectious, heartfelt, impossibly naïve yet ultimately honest look at that city, circa 1955.

You can see why composers and choreographers can't stop revisiting that decade. Older Americans recall the postwar peace and prosperity. But under that placid surface roiled an undercurrent of rebellion against conformity, in everything from rock 'n' roll to the start of civil rights activism.

Those two activities merge in "Memphis," mainly in the character of white, R&B-loving disc jockey Huey Calhoun. He's based partly on Dewey Phillips, who led the AM radio ratings there for much of the Eisenhower presidency, and partly on Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed, who was bolder about interracial activity than Phillips could afford to be.

Huey's zany antics on a radio tryout earn fans for himself and the black music he plays. But Huey (Bryan Fenkart) has bigger plans: He's in love with black singer Felicia Farrell (Felicia Boswell), and he wants to make Memphis - and, later, the world - embrace her not only as a performer but as his wife.

Here the play stumbles: The stupidest, most arrogant Tennessean (which Huey is not) would expect no such thing in the '50s, especially after he and she take a fearful beating for walking publicly as a couple.

Perhaps composer-lyricist David Bryan and writer Joe DiPietro, two New Jersey boys who were in diapers during the civil rights movement, misconstrue the South or aim at a fable rather than reality: White girls happily skip rope with African-Americans in a rough black neighborhood, and the choir of an all-black church embraces a white newcomer with smiles and open arms.

Eventually, though, the play finds its truthful core. It goes where it inevitably must, reminding us that a change was indeed gonna come - and, in some ways, is yet to come - but that history moves slowly.

Costumes and sets put us right in the period, especially when we're in the basement blues club run by Felicia's pragmatic brother. (Quentin Earl Darrington's strong presence made me wish he'd had a bigger part.) Few of the songs feel like they come from midcentury; Bryan, the keyboard player for Bon Jovi, wrote mostly '80s-style power ballads that let Boswell shake the rafters with her stirring voice.

Fenkart gets his exasperating, genial character just right. He's asked to play a holy fool who stumbles into popularity and deludes himself into believing that he's invulnerable: You like him but want to shake him until his teeth rattle like maracas. Fenkart mingles pathos with goofball charm, and he can bring the house down with an anthem - even if it's in praise of a hometown whose racial politics break his heart.

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