Memphis the Musical Sings and Dances with Abandon at the Hobby Center

The setup:

In Memphis the Musical, now running at the Hobby Center courtesy of Gexa Energy Broadway Across America, hick cracker Huey (Bryan Fenkart) comes alive when hearing black rhythm and blues in the (literally) underground black clubs of 1950s Memphis, especially when sung by hot singer Felicia (Felicia Boswell). He wants to spread the music around, and surprisingly gets a DJ job spinning "race records" on the radio, then stars in a local TV dance show featuring an all-black cast. He also falls hard for Felicia, who needs but one lucky break to hit the big time. Their relationship takes a beating in the segregated South, but it's impossible to stop the inevitable change, as this new music "with an itch" gets incorporated into the white consciousness.

The execution:

With book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro (the long-running revue I Love You You're Perfect, Now Change; The Toxic Avenger, which opens January 20 at the Alley Theatre; and the impending Gershwinesque Nice Work If You Can Get It) and music by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, this lively musical, which won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical, is Hairspray gone gritty.

It's the same theme: getting opposites to play well together. In Hairspray, fireplug Tracy integrates the American Bandstand-like TV dance show; in Memphis, geeky Huey gets white folks to swing their hips to this dangerous new music. Loosely based on legendary Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips and his Red, Hot & Blue show, this musical bounces through the era without truly landing anywhere.

Derivative and predictable -- you just know racist, uptight Mom from Act I will rock out soulfully in Act II, or Felicia's protective brother will come around and begrudgingly accept Huey, or mute Gator will find his voice -- the show rolls along with an infectious beat because of its rocking score and an entire stage full of energetic dancers and high-powered singers. The love story remains lukewarm, not because of actors Fenkart and Boswell, who whoop and wail with consummate artistry, as does everyone in the impressive cast, but because the characters and situation never surprise.

If the plot moves in chunks, the staging positively glides under director Christopher Ashley. You can't fault a musical that sings and dances with such gleeful abandon. Under Howell Binkley's shape-shifting lighting, David Gallo's quick-change sets and maestro Alvin Hough's excitable tempi, Sergio Trujillo's hip-swiveling choreography never palls. It keeps our attention when the plot sags and goes on autopilot. And the singing is above reproach, as are Bryan's soulful ballads, gospel-tinged anthems and rock 'n' roll-derived tunes. It's a party on stage, led by Quentin Earl Darrington, Rhett George, Will Mann and Julie Johnson as Huey's redemptive mama.

The verdict:

You won't find a more energetic musical anytime soon. The story may be sketchy, but its heart has an unbeatable rhythm, while the amazing cast exudes enough charm and talent to keep the show rocking long into the night. The Tony Award-winning musical runs through October 30 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Buy tickets online at www.thehobbycenter.org or call the box office at 713-315-2400.

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