CLEARWATER — In some ways, Memphis is kind of clunky. As befits a show with a score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, the music has plenty of punch, but one hard-thumping rhythm and blues shouter after another can become a bit monotonous for those who like a little complexity in their musical theater. And Joe DiPietro's book, chronicling the life and times of a white Memphis DJ who bucked segregation by playing "race records" on his program, can bog down at times, as when the story leaves the fantasy world of early top 40 radio for the more literal imagery of television.
But in the end, this four-time 2010 Tony Award winner (including best musical) gets the dramatic job done, mainly because of the oddball character of Huey Calhoun, the DJ who "was lost until I found the music of my soul." As played by Bryan Fenkart, Huey is an obnoxious, annoying, insufferable eccentric, a "backward hick" who falls in love with a black woman, a romance rife with ugly complications, such as their brutal beating by a group of white men. Fenkart has a nasal, high-pitched, almost whining voice that is surprisingly effective in big anthems like The Music of My Soul, Radio and Memphis Lives in Me. His quirky, anti-leading man persona (not unlike that of the actor who originated the role, Chad Kimball) grows on you.
Huey's paramour is a singer named Felicia, given an enjoyable if somewhat generic portrayal by understudy Crystal Joy in Tuesday night's opening show at Ruth Eckerd Hall (Felicia Boswell, who normally plays the role, was ill). Eventually, singer and DJ have a painful parting — she is desperate to get out of the South ("We could be safe...up North"); he is ambivalent about accompanying her to New York, where he would have to wear a suit — and when Felicia returns in triumph for a concert in Memphis, with a broken-down Huey joining her onstage for Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll, their reunion is the emotional payoff.
Speaking of triumphant returns, Quentin Earl Darrington, a Lakeland native who got a lot of theater training at Ruth Eckerd Hall, plays Felicia's older brother, Delray, who runs the Beale Street juke joint where Huey goes to hear black music. Darrington's rich baritone is the best pure voice in the cast, and his blending with Fenkart and Joy in Stand Up was gorgeous.
The musical is full of sharp character roles, such as Gator (Rhett George), a mute bartender who breaks his silence in Say a Prayer; Julie Johnson as Huey's Mama, whose transformation from bigot to gospel diva ("Colored folk sing like white people can't!") brings down the house in Change Don't Come Easy; and William Parry as Mr. Simmons, a radio station owner (with an alarming resemblance to Terry Bradshaw, the old Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback).
Memphis, directed by Christopher Ashley, is set in the '50s, but the milieu of the musical seems to suggest it is taking place a few years later, when segregation wasn't quite as iron-clad and the horn-heavy sound of Bryan's score was more in vogue with soul singers like Otis Redding and Sam & Dave. The use of black and white video (and some rather pointless projections that look like trippy screen savers) during scenes of Huey's teen dance show on TV isn't very successful, bringing to mind another musical, Hairspray, which handles the whole theme of rock and civil rights with more wit. David Gallo's set tests the limits of Ruth Eckerd's cramped stage.
A highlight of the production is the choreography of Sergio Trujillo, a master of pop dance styles (he also choreographed Jersey Boys). Especially memorable were the Temptations-like moves by a gold-suited trio in Everybody Wants To Be Black on a Saturday Night and a girlish jump-rope sequence combined with acrobatic leaps and even hints of hip-hop in the exhilarating dance break for Radio. Alvin Hough Jr. conducts the crack nine-piece band.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.