NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - I’ve never been to Memphis, but I’ve seen “Memphis,” the new Broadway musical, and can only hope that the city isn’t a disappointment by comparison.
This tale of a white DJ in the 1950s desperately enamored of “race music” and a black singer whom he helps rise to stardom comes as an out-of-left-field-surprise: an original musical, not based on a presold property and devoid of stars, that is joyfully entertaining in musical and theatrical terms.
Although its themes are familiar -- “Dreamgirls” and “Hairspray” both come to mind -- and it doesn’t fully manage to avoid cliched aspects, the show could well turn out to be a surprise hit.
The wonderfully charismatic Chad Kimball plays Huey Calhoun (loosely based on the real-life ‘50s DJ Dewey Phillips), who in the opening scene shows up at a Beale Street nightclub, much to the consternation of its black owner, Delray (J. Bernard Calloway), and his patrons. But the fast-talking Huey quickly wins them over with his enthusiasm for black music, and Delray’s sister, Felicia (Montego Glover), finds herself intrigued with this rough-hewn figure who promises to get her on the radio.
Through sheer bravado, Huey manages to get himself a job at a small local station, where, despite the reservations of its owner (Michael McGrath), he manages to make his show a local sensation thanks to his spinning of the R&B records previously unavailable to white listeners.
You might be able to guess the rest of the plot. Huey, despite being functionally illiterate, overcomes all obstacles by the sheer force of his colorful personality -- he makes much use of his trademark phrase, “Hockadoo!” -- and transforms himself as a wildly popular local radio and television figure. He and Felicia begin a passionate but clandestine love affair, and her star soon rises as well. But racial obstacles, in the form of the lovers’ disapproving relatives and the community at large, threaten the relationship, and Dewey soon finds out that his efforts to integrate the airwaves won’t fly when he and Felicia are courted by a national television network.
Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) handles these complicated themes in a way that’s never heavy-handed, with the story’s melodramatic aspects leavened by frequent doses of hilarious one-liners, many of them expertly delivered by Kimball.
The show eschews becoming yet another jukebox musical with its terrific original score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, which provides an expert pastiche of ‘50s-era R&B, rock and gospel.
Credit, too, must go to the superbly brisk staging by Christopher Ashley and the exuberant choreography by Sergio Trujillo, which is terrifically handled by the large ensemble.
Kimball, coming across like an older, Southern-twanged version of Christian Slater in “Pump Up the Volume,” makes for an offbeat but unforgettable leading man, and his hilarious and ultimately deeply moving performance will be well remembered come awards time. Co-star Glover, displaying a powerful set of pipes, also is strong as the ambitious Felicia, and Derrick Baskin, J. Bernard Calloway, James Monroe Iglehart and Cass Morgan make strong impressions in their supporting roles.
Tech credits are top-notch, with David Gallo’s sets and Paul Tazewell’s costumes perfectly redolent of the era.