Play that funky music, white boy.
As the story goes, it was daring white disc jockeys who brought black music to the ears of white teens in the racially segregated United States of the 1950s. Memphis, last year’s Tony Award winner for best musical, is inspired by those pioneering platter-spinners – in particular, Dewey Phillips, the Tennessee radio personality who gave Elvis Presley his first on-air exposure.
Phillips becomes a white-trash visionary named Huey Calhoun in this fast-and-loose rendition of rock ’n’ roll history, currently burning up the mainstage of the Toronto Centre for the Arts. And instead of Elvis, his discovery is a black female singer with whom he breaks the broadcasting colour barrier in more ways than one.
Huey, played in this Dancap-presented touring production by Bryan Fenkart, is a sort of idiot-savant hero – a gonzo goofball whose pure, simple love for rhythm and blues sparks a pop-music revolution. And the musical itself is a bit like Huey – exuberant, funny but a little soft in the head. To enjoy it, you’ll need to forget what you know about the real history of American popular music. And you’ll also have to ignore the fact that it reiterates racial stereotypes even as it celebrates racial harmony.
A poor and feckless youth, Huey wanders innocently into an all-black club on Memphis’s fabled Beale Street, seduced by the music he hears. Before long, he’s also fallen for the girl singing that music, Felicia Ferrell (Felicia Boswell), whose protective big brother, Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington), runs the club.
After pestering his way into a job as a DJ at a local white radio station, Huey starts spinning “race records” – to the horror of management and the delight of teenage listeners. He also uses his new-found popularity to give aspiring recording artist Felicia her big break.
Soon, bigger fame beckons for both: a recording contract for Felicia and a national television dance show for Huey, whose only rival for the job is a Philly kid named Dick Clark. But Huey’s racial naiveté proves a liability for his career and his relationship with Felicia. The musical’s book, by Joe DiPietro, hints at Phillips’s actual fate – an alcoholic and speed freak, he died of heart failure at 42 – but quickly skirts the darkness in favour of an upbeat ending.
As a story, the show is strongest in the first act, which is predominantly comic and therefore allows us to forgive the cartoonish characterizations. Fenkart’s Huey is an irrepressible doofus and, while we can’t figure out what Boswell’s sassy, level-headed Felicia sees in him, we do enjoy his antics. A scene where he wildly improvises a beer commercial on the radio is especially funny.
But it’s already clear DiPietro and his collaborator, composer and co-lyricist David Bryan, have more serious intentions. Felicia bares her soul with the smouldering ballad Colored Woman. And the club’s mute barman (Rhett George), traumatized by his father’s lynching, finds his voice to sing a heart-rending hymn to hope and change, Say a Prayer. You can see why some have called Memphis the musical that represents the ideals of the Obama administration in the same way that Camelot stood for the Kennedy era.
Act 2, when Huey suffers for his Ebony and Ivory ideals, is less convincing. His big emotional valentine to his Southern roots, Memphis Lives in Me, sounds like something commissioned by that city’s tourism board. But then all the songs are a bit like that. Bryan, better known as the keyboard player for Bon Jovi, is a facile composer in both senses of the word. He does first-rate pastiches of R&B, gospel, soul and old-time rock ’n’ roll, but they never become anything more than that.
The cast puts them across with the same showy yet contrived style. It’s one of those musicals where you admire the awesome vocal technique of the singers without ever being genuinely moved. Still, it’s a highly skilled entertainment. Director Christopher Ashley keeps up a driving pace, facilitated by David Gallo’s smoothly shape-changing scenic design. Costumier Paul Tazewell gives Huey a hilariously tacky wardrobe that suggests the DJ is literally colour blind.
But if there’s a real star it’s Canadian choreographer Sergio Trujillo of Jersey Boys fame. He lays down an endless medley of creatively funky movement, from the supple dirty dancing of the club’s patrons to a symbolic game of double-dutch involving black and white teens.
There were quite a few young people at Wednesday night’s opening performance. I’m afraid Memphis will give them the mistaken impression that the African-American influence on mainstream music only began in the Fifties. But they may also have come away with another, not inaccurate, lesson: that racism in the music industry finally caved in to greed. When the white characters here discover how well black music sells, it’s amazing how quickly they become tolerant.
Memphis runs until Dec. 24.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro
- Music and lyrics by David Bryan
- Directed by Christopher Ashley
- Starring Bryan Fenkart, Felicia Boswell and Quentin Earl Darrington
- At the Toronto Centre for the Arts