Before its reputation was Gracelanded to gaudiness and mangled by the murder of Martin Luther King, Memphis had already achieved quite sufficient notoriety — serving as the cradle of the blues and later as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. In its funky way, Memphis the Musical blew into Ovens Auditorium last week and reminded us that both of these precious heirlooms were the creations of African-Americans, exploited by white folk into mighty commerciality against the push-back other white folks, clergy, and stodgy corporations.
So Huey Calhoun, the fictional composite of deejays Dewey Phillips and Alan Freed, was about the most quixotic scamp of a hero you could imagine back in the storied 1950s: Poor and unemployed, shy and inexperienced with women, and stone cold illiterate. Overcoming these shortcomings is the work Huey’s chutzpah, his indefatigable mouth, and his unshakable conviction that all the world — black and white — should be listening, grooving, and dancing to the treasurable music buried in the basement joints on Beale Street.
Further fueled by his total admiration for the body, soul, and singing of Felicia, the diva of Delray’s Club, Huey becomes the mouthpiece for the rockin’ sounds of Beale Street, bringing the music to the middle of the AM radio dial and then in front of live cameras on local Memphis TV. Fronting the touring version of the Tony Award-winning hit, Bryan Fenkart brought us a Huey that testified voluminously to the rich detailing that Christopher Asley lavished on his stage direction, both on Broadway and on the road. Although Fenkart couldn’t hide his aptitude as a dancer — and oftentimes walked consecutive steps in the same direction — he was nearly as funky and eccentric as Chad Kimball was on Broadway.
On tour, Felicia Boswell is easily the equal of Broadway’s Montego Glover as Felicia. Unlike Joe DiPietro’s deeply knowing and nuanced book, however, the music written for Felicia by David Bryan doesn’t really package enough substance for us to discern any separation between Boswell and Glover. Range, check. Power, check. That’s about all Bryan’s generic songs require — and they don’t exactly smack of the '50s, either.
As we’d expect, Sergio Trujillo’s choreography and Paul Tazewell’s costume designs are dutifully preserved on tour. More gratifying, David Gallo’s magnificent set design wasn’t significantly compromised, so we shuttled between Delray’s subterranean haunt to the local AM studio or the makeshift TV dance floor with a slickness worthy of Broadway. If anything, I found the Act 1 climax even more powerful at Ovens seeing it the second time than I did just over two years ago at the Shubert Theatre. Aside from Fenkart and Boswell, credit for that dramatic power should be accorded to the special rancor and menace that Quentin Earl Darrington brings to Delray, Felecia’s protective elder brother, and the pure fervor that Rhett George bestows on the long-silent Gator, who finds his voice at exactly the right moment.