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A Blurry Portrait

Memphis debuts on Broadway.

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Memphis debuts on Broadway. On October 19th, Beale Street intersected with Broadway in a manner that would permanently short-circuit MapQuest and should make local tourism concerns happy. That's when Memphis, the musical, opened on New York's Great White Way.

A bold attempt to encompass the spirit of our fair city, Memphis begins in the 1950s with the entrance of young, white music enthusiast Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball) into the blues nightclub owned by Delray (J. Bernard Calloway) and featuring star performances by Delray's sister Felicia Farrell (Montego Glover). Huey is met with immediate suspicion; he is white, after all, in a black club. But once he proves his love of the underground music — as well as some affection for the attractive Felicia — he is gradually accepted among the patrons.

Illiterate, unable to hold down a job, and basically directionless, Huey's life takes off once he experiences true Memphis blues. He hops from a job selling records at a department store to a gig as a DJ at a local radio station once his bosses catch on that "race records" sell like hotcakes. The world changes, as if overnight, when Huey starts spinning the music of Delray's club on the Memphis airwaves — as punctuated by jazzed-up, white-bread bobbysoxers and lettermen letting loose on the song "Everybody Wants To Be Black on a Saturday Night" and an impressive, desegregated double-dutch jump-rope display.

Meanwhile, Huey and Felicia inch toward coupledom. Huey's racist mother breaks the only copy of Felicia's single, but Huey assembles Delray's club musicians to accompany her live on the air. She's an immediate sensation and her newfound success seems to seal the deal that Huey might be the man for her. Before long, she's on the fast track to a record deal in New York and Huey goes from radio DJ to TV dance-show host. Egos collide, racism divides, and eventually Huey must decide which is more important to him — Felicia or her music — and whether he can ever leave his hometown, even if it means superstardom in New York.

Like Memphis or loathe it (I'm talking city now, not musical), there is an unmistakable flavor to it. Thus, any musical distillation of our hometown would be hard-pressed to get all of the ingredients just right. Bookwriter/lyricist Joe DiPietro (who wrote the delightful stage confection I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change) and music/lyrics writer and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan have painted Memphis using broad strokes — a blurry portrait that evokes but does not specify contributions made by actual figures in actual places. Dick Clark gets more mention in Memphis than Martin Luther King. We hear of the Orpheum and Overton Park but get little sense of the rest of Huey and Felicia's world. The "when" and "where" of Memphis look and feel like places the authors have heard a lot about but never visited; the characters familiar but unmet.

And yet, as fantasy, Memphis works just fine. Kimball and Glover are canny performers with the right balance of optimism and Mid-Southern weariness. In fact, if there is a specifically Memphis detail in the production, it is Kimball's Huey. He's odd, squirmy, and funky but bewilderingly endearing in a manner still findable in Memphis. Thrift-store clothes, a bit of a stink on him, an infectious smile ... you've seen a dozen of them. This doesn't compensate for the predictable romance or lack of real chemistry in what should be an ultra-charged, forbidden interracial affair, but it helps.

Glover and Kimball are offered show-stoppers in "Colored Woman" and "Memphis Lives in Me." The tunes themselves aren't memorable (this music is for tapping your foot to, not humming along with), but they're performed with such verve that you won't mind not recalling them later.

Ultimately, Memphis succeeds as Broadway musical but not as Beale. In New York, it looked great. (The audience rewarded the hardworking performers with a much-deserved standing O.) But Memphians might not recognize much. There's a street authenticity to what you find in the better Beale Street clubs or, say, Wild Bill's on Vollintine that can't exist in the scrubbed-down Shubert Theatre in Manhattan. Memphis is all glitz and gloss, with razzle-dazzle smiles. It flatters but along the way loses the very real struggles that can't be solved with production numbers.

The real Memphis is grime and grit — with a grin.

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