It must be a nice feeling to go two-for-two.
Starlight Theatre, after last week’s splendid touring production of “The Addams Family,” follows up with the outstanding national tour of “Memphis,” a big-hearted show full of big songs and bigger voices. When this rock musical shifts into high gear, the results are electrifying.
“Memphis” is by playwright Joe DiPietro and composer David Bryan and depicts the profound effect of music in the 1950s, when race relations could be summed in one word: Ugly.
The story’s central figure is a white DJ with a whacked-out hillbilly persona named Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), who changes the face of radio and television in Memphis in the early 1950s by playing race records and promoting “all Negro” concerts.
We first meet Huey when he walks into an off-the-radar black blues club run by the all-business Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington), whose sister Felicia (Felicia Boswell) is the club’s featured singer. The African-American club patrons don’t know what to make of this seemingly crazed white guy with a down-home accent and genuine love of rhythm and blues.
Huey, who is illiterate and grew up in poverty and still lives with his mother in a poor section of town, demonstrates the kind of fearlessness and goofy optimism we sometimes encounter in folks with nothing to lose. He goes for broke with every move he makes.
At the center of the show is an affecting love story between Huey and Felicia, who cannot go public with their relationship because of the racist strictures of the time.
Felicia thinks things might be better if they move north, but Huey sees himself as Memphis personified and wants to make his stand in his hometown. Even though they’re discrete, one night they’re attacked by white thugs who leave Felicia with permanent injuries.
There are times when the plotting seems a bit too reminiscent of other show business sagas written for the stage, and you can’t avoid the fact that this is yet another African-American musical experience filtered through the commercial sensibilities of white writers. That said, the show is an honorable effort to depict a time when racism was arguably at its worst, and how music helped bring down barriers.
Indeed, this is a show you can’t help rooting for, thanks to its humanistic spirit and the excellent performers. Boswell, Fenkart and Will Mann, who plays Delray’s aide-de-camp Bobby, all performed this show on Broadway, and most of the other featured players have significant Broadway credits.
Initially, Fenkart’s hillbilly-on-speed delivery seems a bit much, but eventually we accept the voice as an expression of a truly eccentric character. Boswell’s performance of “Colored Woman” is searing and riveting.
Darrington brings subtlety and some well-chosen flourishes to Delray, who as written is basically a one-note disapproving character. Mann fills the stage with gleeful optimism, while Rhett George brings infectious good humor to the stage as Gator, the wryly observant bartender.
These characters go through some major changes, but the most remarkable transformation is found in Gladys, Huey’s mama (Julie Johnson).
Initially, she’s a familiar stereotype of poor whites who find solace in religion and racial attitudes, a way of coping with a harsh, unfair world. But after Huey begins earning some serious money, Mama begins looking at things a bit differently. After an epiphany in a black church, she decides that tolerance — even grudging tolerance — is the way to go. Johnson’s big number, “Change Don’t Come Easy,” is a bravura show-stopper.
Bryan’s music is rhythmically irresistible and familiar as he dips into gospel and blues influences, but in truth, a lot of the music in this show bears few similarities to the blues and rockabilly that were performed and recorded in Memphis in the ’50s.
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo, whose work has been seen by Starlight audiences two weeks in a row, has created some athletic and agreeably kinetic dances, superbly executed by a talented ensemble.