If ever there was an example of the perils of Broadway-ization, Memphis is it. There's nothing shoddy about this production (now on tour at the Colonial through December 23). The staging of this Tony-winning musical is astute, generous even. The harmonies are expertly written and delivered. The cast is handsome and beautifully costumed (but for one intentional exception), and they sing and dance the hell out their story. It's the story they're given to tell that lets them — and us — down.
That story, on the surface, is a good one. It's starting point is the life of Dewey Phillips, a white Memphis disc jockey who, in the 1950s, gained a rabid fan base in his home town by playing black music — R&B, blues, gospel, and, eventually, rock and roll. He gained his place in history by being the first man to play Elvis Presley on the radio (and also conduct the first radio interview with the future King). It was Elvis's first single, the epochal "That's All Right [Mama]."
A great story, right? Miscegenation — that's the story of the birth of rock and roll right there. The problem is in how playwright/lyricist Joe DiPietro and songwriter (and Bon Jovi keyboardist) David Bryan tell it! We never get to the King, which is fine. There's plenty more to this story: white teens going crazy for black music in the Jim Crow South on the cusp of the civil rights movement. Dewey has been fictionalized as Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), a loudmouth hayseed whose love of black music has led him to the clubs of Beale Street. There he falls in love with a singer named Felicia (Felicia Boswell). The travails of bi-racial love in 1950s Tennessee ensue.
So, yes, that setup is fine. But DiPietro and Bryan paint this familiar tale in the broadest possible strokes. It's not just that this town that's racist as heck is bringing up a younger generation in love with black music. Or that when the black characters sing, it's always about sex. Or that when the white teenage girls show up, they're blonde. Because white teenage girls are always blonde. Or the derisive references to "colored" people and "race" music (with one strategic, gasp-inducing use of the "n" word). And if we still don't get the point, we meet a character named Gator who hasn't spoken since he was five years old, when he saw his father lynched. Do I give anything away by saying that he'll find his voice in song before the end of the first act?
As for the love story, Fenkart has his clownish charm, but Boswell's Felicia seems too sophisticated and worldly for him from the get-go. What does she see in this guy? Anyway, Huey talks his way onto the local radio station, becomes super popular, plays Felicia's first single, gets a TV show. There's the threat of racial violence, and then racial violence. Felicia longs to move to New York, not just for her career, but to be safe. Huey wants to stay in Memphis because . . . it's his home town and, as he sings ardently, "Memphis Lives in Me."