Joe DiPietro and David Bryan -- the latter an original member of the rock band Bon Jovi -- took inspiration from the real life accomplishments of Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips and created a Tony-winning sensation.
Memphis was first produced at the North Shore Music Theatre in 2003. Six years later, the show opened on Broadway, delighting critics and audiences alike and taking four Tonys. Now the show returns to the area with a Boston stop on a national touring production.
"Memphis" is named for the city where (in the play’s mythology, at least) black music was first introduced to white radio listeners. Historically, this cross-pollination of black music to white audiences marked the start of a cultural transformation that eventually gave rise to rock and roll -- a form of music that, as one character in "Memphis" observes, "is Negro blues sped up."
But this is no musty, buttoned-up history lesson, nor does "Memphis" shy from the painful parts of a story that involves the hard business of standing up to bigotry and helping usher in significant change. First and foremost, the music is simply terrific, played by live musicians and channeling the era’s inventive, effusive rhythms and saucy, subversive sound.
The staging is also cutting edge, from the ingenious set design that sees scenic elements pulled apart and reconfigured in crafty ways to the use of projection to evoke early live television and cinematic effects like a trio of performers that seem to hover in a spinning 45 single floating above the stage.
The Power of Music, the Power of Change
White teens took to rock and roll in droves, of course, and the rise of African American recording artists also helped power an eventual sea change in race relations. In the 1950s, however, the very idea of white kids listening to "race music" was enough to send parents in paroxysms of rage and panic.
Even more incendiary was the idea of Caucasians and African Americans intermarrying, a family configuration that was denied by law by some states well into the 1960s. It took an eventual Supreme Court decision, 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, finally to strike down anti-miscegenation laws.
The very first scene establishes the year (the start of 1952) and the background fact that white listeners are tuning in to white-owned stations to listen to white artists singing white (or, if you like, vanilla) tunes.
Love and Vision
Elsewhere on the radio dial, and across town, a more energetic kind of music has people jumping. The play whisks us to Delray’s, a juke joint where there "Ain’t no white folks here, ’cause they too damn scared!"
Delray (Horace V. Rogers) is the club’s owner; his sister, Felicia (Felicia Boswell), is Delray’s star singer, and her voice draws an unusual patron into the joint in the person of Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart).
Huey’s persona is that of an uneducated, but infectiously enthusiastic, bumpkin. He’s either naive to the fact that both blacks and whites frown on interracial romance, or he’s too smitten by Felicia to care; either way, Huey promptly gets off on the wrong foot with Delray and the club’s patrons when he flatters Felicia with a compliment on her beauty. It takes some quick thinking and a rendition of "The Music of My Soul" to win over the club’s outraged regulars.
"The Music of My Soul" is the show’s second number, and it follows on "Underground." Between them, these first two songs sketch out the racial climate of the times and establish Huey’s status as a fearless pioneer whose vision of bringing black music to a white mainstream marks him as visionary to the point of color blindness.
Sex, Race, and the Roots of Rock
It would be unthinkable to separate music and love, and disingenuous at best to try to strip rock or the blues of the frank sexuality celebrated both in lyrics and the musical language those genres use.
"Memphis" treats the still-highly charged subjects of race, sex, and music with a mature mix of family-friendly discretion and naturalistic forthrightness. Huey’s instant love for Felicia only grows as everyone from Delray to Huey’s own mother (Julie Johnson) expresses various degrees of anger and anxiety over it, but as Felicia begins to reciprocate Huey’s feelings the play’s already electric energy takes on extra voltage... and a frisson of danger.
Before long, however, it’s clear that the two lead characters are not only in love, but doing something about it. It’s also clear that they face not only the unforgiving weight of racist laws, but also the vengeful fury of a society willing to do violence to anyone who dares challenge its sexual and racial taboos.
It’s that very spirit of oppression under which a spark of youthful rebellion catches on. With a couple of lucky breaks, and a lot of comically unhinged patter, Huey becomes the city’s #1 disc jockey, and everything in his path is bowled over and changed up through his sheer force of personality -- right down the call letters of the station where he works, which he alters with a stroke simply by announcing one day that he’s spinning discs at WRNB.
Act in Haste or Repent at Leisure
Huey’s musical taste and innate showmanship make him a natural point man as white kids discover black music and the resulting seismic shift translates to commercial opportunity. Rhythm and blues takes hold on radio all over the country; when Huey starts a local television program, network suits are quick to pay attention. Brilliant careers are about to be forged, including Felicia’s, but do Huey’s ambitions extend outside of his home town? And if they do, are they urgent enough to warrant betraying everything he believes in?
Boswell commands every song she takes on, from the sweet delicacy of "Someday" to the gospel thunder of "Make Me Stronger" and the pure power of "Love Will Stand When All Else Falls." Fenkart’s singing is expressive, one more well-deployed asset in his razor-sharp performance. Other cast members get their moments to shine -- Will Mann’s Bobby, a janitor who becomes part of Huey’s show, busts out for "Big Love," while Rhett George’s bartender Gator leads the way on the moving "Say A Prayer."
But it’s Johnson who nearly steals the show when she spearheads "Change Don’t Come Easy," sending the audience into sheer ecstasy and bringing the house to roaring, well deserved applause.
This production is aces across the board, evoking the 1950s but speaking right to the world of the present moment. Christopher Ashley’s direction, Sergio Trujillo’s choreography, Darryl Archibald’s music direction, David Gallo’s set design, Howell Binkley lighting, Paul Tazewell’s costumes -- every element is brilliantly conceived and executed with a dynamism that makes this show out-and-out "fantastical."
Act in haste to catch this production of "Memphis" at the Colonial Theater during its too-brief two-week run, or repent missing it at your leisure.
"Memphis" continues at the Citi Performing Arts Center Colonial Theatre. located at 106 Boylston Street in Boston, through Dec. 23. Tickets start at $34. Performances take place Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings at 7:30; Fridays and Saturday evenings at 8:00; Saturday afternoons at 2:00; and Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30.
Tickets are available online at www.BroadwayInBoston.com and via phone at 1-866-348-9738. Tickets also available to the Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre Box Office, located at 270 Tremont Street in Boston.