In Memphis's story of race and music, no happy ending is necessary

At the center of Memphis, an energetic, Tony-winning musical dealing with race and music in the 1950s, is a white man, Huey Calhoun, who's fascinated by black music. Stumbling into an underground rock-and-roll club, he's greeted at first with suspicion, but wins grudging acceptance after declaring in song that this is "The Music of My Soul." He also sees the beautiful Felicia, the club star, and falls for her, right under the protective eye of her brother, Delray.

Now a man possessed, Calhoun sets out to spread the word. He convinces the manager of the department store where he works to let him man the record counter, tosses out the scheduled Perry Como number and plays a powerhouse song called "Scratch My Itch." This sells a lot of discs but costs him his job. His first stint as a DJ follows a similar trajectory: He infuriates the station manager but fires up the local teenagers, both black and white. Soon he's on his way to radio fame, and eventually he hosts his own television show. Calhoun's story is loosely based on the career of Dewey Phillips, an iconoclastic, intense and eccentric radio man whose musical tastes helped smash race barriers and who was the first DJ to air Elvis Presley's debut disc, "That's All Right." But Phillips's addiction to drugs and drink, along with changing times, eventually were his undoing.

The first act of Memphis is a joy from beginning to end, filled with lively numbers and wondrous singing and dancing. The theme of young people sweeping away decades of adult hypocrisy and repression through sheer exuberance has been with us forever, but it's still lots of fun. The music is original but evokes the times, and the depictions of silky girl singers and smooth-moving guy groups created by the cast and composer David Bryan, along with impressions of singers like James Brown, Little Richard and a cardigan-clad Perry Como — smooth, relaxed and about to be swept off stage by the tide of musical history — are irresistible. The feel-good theme of black and white Americans coming to accept if not understand each other through the power of music is well-worn, too, but it still gets to us. There are hints of darker currents in Joe DiPietro's script, which lets us know how dangerous it could be at the time for black and white people to be seen together, let alone to touch each other. Other issues, such as the shameful appropriation of rhythm and blues by white performers, get a brief mention. And at the end of act one, violence explodes.

But after the intermission, the musical starts spinning its wheels. We get a lot of arguments between Huey and Felicia — actually, it's the same argument repeated over and over — as she wants her shot at national fame while he needs to stay true to his own twisted and particular Memphis roots. Except for a couple of stellar numbers, the music starts feeling repetitive. The characters don't develop, and you start noticing cliches. Hands up if you didn't know immediately on encountering Gator, who's been mute since seeing his father lynched (Where? When? How? We'll never know), that he'd find his voice at a highly dramatic moment and sing with astonishing power and feeling. Indeed, he will — and his backstory will never be mentioned again. Of course, Huey's mean, racist mom will reform — and while I loved the song in which she testified to her change of heart, it was heard to believe that this change happened because she'd wandered into a black church and finally understood the way black people sing. As opposed to, say, talking to her son, or getting to know the lovely Felicia.

Despite the drawbacks, this show is a must-see for the performances alone: Bryan Fenkart's fumbling and ungainly Huey, Felicia Boswell's star turn as Felicia, Horace V. Rogers as strong-voiced and suspicious Delray, and Will Mann, who plays Bobby and gets to show off all his chops in "Big Love." And if the role of Gator is underwritten, Rhett George's gorgeous voice fully ransoms it.

It's also to DiPietro's credit that there's no conventional happy ending: You won't see this cast bopping ecstatically around the stage singing "You Can't Stop the Beat." Instead, what Memphis makes clear is that even if the beat does go on and on and on, not everyone who first loved, understood and promoted it managed to keep up.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman