Musicals based on the birth of rock 'n' roll have been bankable commodities in recent years. Start with Hairspray, the 2003 Tony Award winner that ran over six seasons on Broadway, the story of plump and plucky Tracy Turnblad and the integration of local teenybopper dance TV in Baltimore. Finish with another legend of the 1950s, Million Dollar Quartet, chronicling the once-in-a-lifetime summit meeting of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash at Sam Phillips' storefront recording studio, Sun Records, in Memphis. That rockin' re-creation — with its not-so-flimsy book — held the Broadway stage for 14 months until last summer, and it sported plenty of musical horsepower for the road, as we witnessed at Knight Theater back in November.
In between, six months before Million opened, there was the 2010 Tony Award winner. So now, just in time to celebrate a new year, get ready for another rockin' birth as Memphis rolls and boogaloos into Ovens Auditorium this week (through Jan. 8). The book by Joe DiPietro artfully retells the story of Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam), the Memphis DJ who gave Elvis Presley's first record its first spin. He also sprang Elvis from the closet — spilling the fact that he was white — in a radio interview, getting the future King to specify the segregated high school he attended.
But discovering Elvis isn't the focus of DiPietro's script. No, it's Phillips' struggle to put black music on white mainstream AM radio and, even before the advent of American Bandstand, on local afternoon TV. Mixed in are fictional elements of interracial romance and a few wisps of DJ Alan Freed's bio. By blending these elements together, DiPietro allows us to see black and white people and their music coming together in the segregationist South. Once that begins to happen, we also see the new rock synthesis bumping heads with the established corporate culture of the North. The whole struggle up yonder wasn't all about showing Elvis's gyrating pelvis live on a national feed.
To relieve us of the confusion of Phillipses, Dewey is renamed Huey, and his passion for black music is personified in a hot new songstress, Felicia, he discovers at an black underground rock 'n' roll bar. The owner of the eponymous Delray's is Felicia's protective elder brother, with an unconcealed interest in being her manager. Unlike Hairspray, racism and racial violence are two-way streets.
Memphis isn't quite as comical as Hairspray. There is nothing like the cross-dressing basso profundo Edna Turnblad to tickle your funnybone. Yet Huey, as played by Tony nominee Chad Kimball certainly had his moments — a natural-born salesman with a nose for talent, he was brash, nervy, illiterate, and resolutely weird. Hockadoo! His story and his trials are grittier, more emotional than Tracy's American dream come true. When I saw the original production of Memphis at the Shubert Theatre (it's still there), the violence and its aftermath at the end of Act 1 hit me like a bus.
Like the Pietro book, the David Bryan-Pietro score took the 2010 Tony, although I didn't find it quite as deserving — nor as varied and humorous as the 2003 winner for Hairspray. But Huey's anthem, "Memphis Lives in Me," comes across as powerfully as Tracy's "You Can't Stop the Beat" — with a more personal investment and a more gospelized flavor.
It'll rock you. Memphis delivers a more sacramental celebration of rock and doo-wop than the other two musicals in Broadway's birth of rock trilogy, and it introduces a 24-carat American original in the character of Huey. As I said two years ago: "Arguably the most charismatic new male role in American musical theatre since The Producers."