It's a plot filled with predictable twists and turns whose main claim to fame is that it is (very) loosely based on the life of Dewey Phillips, a real life white DJ in Memphis in the 1950s who championed the cause of so-called race music. In so many ways it shouldn't work. And yet it does.
As seen on the Hobby Center stage last night, Memphis the Musical transcended its plot with floor-pounding, seat-shaking, high-powered choreography; songs that were energetic and memorable enough to stay with an audience for a while and a lead singer in Simone Gundy who brings it on home with the best of them. This is the show that won four Tony Awards in 2010 with a book by Joe DiPetro and music by David Bryan, the Bon Jovi keyboardist and while it doesn't seem as surprising as it once did, it still has the power to move audiences.
The Theatre Under the Stars production tells the story of Huey Calhoun (Barrett Riggins) a ne'er-do- well who bounces from one job to another until he's able to channel his passion for the rhythm and blues that he's been hearing at a black underground club into a job he's actually good at as a DJ. Despite having a racist mom and dad, Huey is open-minded, especially when it comes to Felicia Farrell (Gundy), a young African American singer looking for a break. All this plays out in a segregated South at a time when Tennessee laws made it illegal for whites and blacks to mix.
As Felicia's initial exasperation with Huey turns into something else they keep their relationship secret. The story fast forwards in chunks through the years as Huey's success at the record store turns into a three-year DJ contract substantial enough that he can buy his mama a house and eventually to a TV show of his own. Huey's television show not only continues his promotion of black musicians but its dancers are all African American. And white kids learn to dance while their parents fret.
Huey and Felicia are discovered by some racist white men with bats. Felicia takes a substantial beating while Huey escapes from it pretty unscathed other than repercussions from her protective brother who delivers an I-told-you-so and tells him to leave his sister alone. Which Huey, of course, does not.
Eventually, as in all thwarted love stories, they come to a parting of the ways. Felicia's big break awaits her in New York City and Huey can't see himself ever leaving Memphis. His last ditch effort to stop her backfires magnificently and just hastens her departure and his own fall from the heights.
Julie Johnson shines as Mama, Huey's mom, who sheds her racist ways and poor hair and clothing choices by Act II and shows she too can sing out in ringing gospel tones while swinging her hips. Philip Lehl is the perfect Mr. Simmons, the producer who doesn't like much of anything about Huey other than he makes him lots of money. Avionce Hoyles plays the mute Gator who's seen some horrors in his life and doesn't have anything to say until when he does with "Say a Prayer" to close the first act in fine style.
In a cameo appearance, Houston Ballet Soloist Harper Watters joined the ensemble to great applause for one number. Mayor Sylvester Turner turned in his cameo on a preview night. Unknown who TUTS is going to ask to come in next.
I hadn't remembered Huey being quite so stupid from other productions of Memphis, and the exaggerated nasal speaking voice that actor Riggins carried through all of the first act and well into the second was annoying and really did not serve him well. But he seemed to relax somewhat by the second half of the second act and delivered the song "Memphis Lives in Me" in wonderful and nuanced voice.
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The star of the night was Gundy, who grew up in Arlington, TX, making her TUTS debut. Strong and expressive, with a beautiful range, she had a resplendent evening. If this is what the new artistic director Dan Knechtges — who directed this production — is doing with his focus on hiring more Texas talent, then we're all for it. Keeping in mind of course that shows whether touring or locally produced, neither quality should confer an automatic sainthood.
It was great to see all those Humphreys School of Musical Theatre kids on stage in the ensemble numbers (and what seemed like a corresponding number of their cheering parents in the audience). Talented kids and adults are laying it all out there with verve and deserve your attention.
Early on there was an uncomfortable moment in the theater when the N-word was uttered by a white character. An audible gasp echoed throughout the room. The second uncomfortable moment, of course, for thinking people as we left the theater is: How many of us in 1950s Tennessee would have been as brave as Felicia and Huey?
Memphis the Musical continues through March 4 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com or thehobbycenter.org. $36-$137.