By Lucy Komisar
It’s 1951 on Beale Street in Memphis, and Huey (Chad Kimball) wanders into a hot music joint. He’s found the music of his soul. The only problem is that this is the black part of town, and he’s white.
Memphis, book by Joe DiPietro, music by David Bryan, lyrics by both, and directed by Christopher Ashley, is a vibrant sometimes sketchy, but visually exciting story musical with terrific sounds that range from rhythm and blues to gospel. It’s a social and political back story of R&B, what blacks referred to as race music.
Huey figures he can build a white audience for the music, and he is right. Along the way, he has to confront his mother’s racism as well as suspicion by blacks and, when he becomes a radio DJ, hostility by the money people who bankroll radio stations. Falling in love with the black lead singer, Felicia (Montego Glover, who shines in this role) doesn’t help. In fact, it gets them beat up.
Struggle against racism dogged the people who created R&B. A network TV show that invites Huey to host wants only white dancers. Officials say they can’t get sponsors for a show with black performers. Huey refuses to give in.
But in the end R&B brings blacks and whites together. Along the way a young white girl goes to a black church, and Huey’s mother (Cass Morgan) gets gospel music religion.
The play moves through Felicia’s struggle to get on the radio and win national recognition. A crisis occurs when she wants to go North to the big time and Huey wants to stay in Memphis, to bring change there.
The story rings true and in fact is inspired by the experience of a white DJ of the time. Montego Glover is dynamic as Felicia, and Chad Kimball is appropriately laid back as Huey. No one without his cool could have survived! Director Ashley moves seamlessly between plot and music so that every element works. The show also features exhilarating, pulsating choreography by Sergio Trujillo.
Memphis. Music & Lyrics by David Bryan, Book & Lyrics by Joe DiPietro. Directed by Christopher Ashley, Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened October 19, 2009.