Only a fledgling musical when it premiered at the 5th Avenue Theatre in 2009, Memphis is back for a triumphant return engagement – this time with a Best Musical Tony and more than 1,100 performances on Broadway under its belt. Stocked with a tremendous cast, this first national tour makes it clear why the accolades have poured in. Sure, Memphis is slick entertainment and little more, but in its consideration of the race issues of the South in the 1950s, the show neither overreaches for profundity nor crassly co-opts a well-established milieu just to ground a love story.
Based loosely on the life of DJ Dewey Phillips, Memphis tells the tale of illiterate ne’er-do-well Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), a white boy whose love of black music puts him in the distinct minority in backwards Memphis. Drawn by what he dubs “the music of my soul,” Huey stumbles upon a party at underground African-American bar Delray’s, where he’s instantly smitten with singer Felicia Farrell (Felicia Boswell), despite the strongly disapproving gaze of her brother Delray (Horace V. Rogers).
Huey vows to get Felicia on the radio, and soon, he’s in the position to do so, having wrangled a radio DJ position via his hillbilly charm and perfect timing, riding the wave of newfound enthusiasm for R&B and proto-rock ’n’ roll all the way to the center of the dial. There may not be much acceptance of black people in Memphis, but their music is a whole other story. Soon, Felicia is a rising star, Huey’s made the jump from radio to TV, and a bright future for them as individuals and as a couple seems within grasp.
The formulaic plot has more propulsive energy in its first act – there’s a dance number in a record store that justifies the ticket alone – while Huey is struggling to assert himself than it does in the second, which tends to flounder during its numerous scenes on the set of Huey’s TV variety show. Fortunately, the performances never flag, with Fenkart and Boswell both owning every one of their numbers. Fenkart sidesteps a potentially obnoxious character voice and inhabits Huey as a livewire with genuine charm and unassailable verve. Boswell’s jaw-dropping vocal talent makes her ascent to stardom completely believable and more than makes up for her presentational, slightly stilted acting.
The supporting cast has its share of ringers too, from Rhett George as a man with an unexpectedly angelic voice to Will Mann’s perfectly attuned comic timing and beaming charisma in a mostly background role and Julie Johnson’s extraordinary singing chops as Huey’s mom.
Memphis is a stirring, immensely enjoyable piece of theater. Its score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan is about as generic as you’d expect considering the pedigree, and the book by Joe DiPietro isn’t terribly concerned with multi-dimensional characters or emotional subtext. But hey, as long as there’s this fantastic of a cast performing the show, those concerns will fade.
Memphis is on stage at the 5th Avenue Theatre through Oct. 7. Tickets are available for purchase online.