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Memphis at Cadillac Palace Theatre

Published on 29th November 2011

★★★☆☆

Cadillac Palace Theatre. Book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro. Music and lyrics by David Bryan. Dir. Christopher Ashley. With Bryan Fenkart, Felicia Boswell. 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.

Music melts racial barriers like soft-serve in Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s pop-rock paean to radio rebels. Goofball white boy Huey (Bryan Fenkart), an impoverished, illiterate native of early 1950s Memphis, hears the music of his soul wafting up from underground juke joints on Beale Street. He ingratiates himself with the denizens of a black rhythm-and-blues club, if not quite winning over the place’s owner, Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington), and finds himself infatuated with Delray’s sister Felicia (Felicia Boswell). Huey soon bluffs his way into a gig as radio DJ, nixing cream-cheesy crooners like Perry Como and Roy Rogers in favor of “race music.”

In addressing the youth-movement rise of rock & roll, Memphis joins a line of Broadway musicals stretching from white-bread Bye Bye Birdie to Technicolor Hairspray. (When Huey lands a TV dance program in Memphis’s second act, you’ll be forgiven if the memory of “You Can’t Stop the Beat” threatens to drown out Bryan’s amiable but comparably blander beats.) Unlike in those shows, however, Memphis lacks a feeling of place in the larger world; DiPietro doesn’t provide enough external opposition. Huey and Felicia’s relationship faces objections from protective brother Delray and from Huey’s disapproving Mama (Julie Johnson), but one quickly forgotten attack by racist goons aside, there’s not enough sense of the pervasiveness of racist sentiment in the midcentury South. Still, Bryan’s R&B pastiches are infectious, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography thrums with energy. Fenkart and Boswell, who previously understudied their roles on Broadway, bring winning charisma and chemistry.—Kris Vire

Time Out Chicago issue no. 353, December 1–7, 2011