The musical “Memphis” promises a provocative tale of a man who uses music to break through the color barrier in the Jim Crow South, but what it delivers is a superficial collection of cliches. Thankfully, the high-caliber performers in this touring production, which reopens the long-shuttered Colonial Theatre, give more than 100 percent. They succeed at capturing the audience’s attention, if not their interest in the story.
Set in 1950s Tennessee and loosely based on real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, a white man who championed rhythm & blues by black artists, “Memphis” never makes its protagonist, here called Huey Calhoun, a compelling character. Quirky? Yes. Sympathetic? Not so much.
Theater veteran Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”), and longtime Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan would seem like a perfect pair; DiPietro wrote the book, Bryan wrote the music, and they penned the lyrics together. The show did pick up four Tony Awards, but it never offers enough character development to build any dramatic tension, and the music never differentiates itself, so the score feels like a wash of similar-sounding songs. The musical, which made its debut at North Shore Music Theatre in 2003, struggled then with a second act that had Huey’s life taking a nasty nosedive, but the solution the creators chose eliminated any character complexity, making for a story that never rises above bland.
Luckily, every one of the singer-actors in this touring company has a breathtaking voice and acting chops to match, from Bryan Fenkart as the wacky Huey to Rhett George, whose vocals on “Say a Prayer” at the end of Act 1 send the audience into intermission breathless.
Felicia Boswell plays Felicia, the talented singer who wins Huey’s heart with her performances in her brother’s Beale Street club. Boswell gives Felicia some spunk, and her voice is thrilling, particularly on “Someday” and “Love Will Stand Up When All Else Fails.” But Boswell and Fenkart have no chemistry together, so when Felicia has the chance to move up to New York, we can hardly see a reason for her to think twice. As Felicia’s brother, Horace V. Rogers is protective and intimidating, and Will Mann is a charming Bobby, who goes from maintenance man to featured singer on Huey’s show, easily winning over the audience with “Big Love.”
Sergio Trujillo’s choreography tries desperately to inject some energy into the action, but even gracefully executed combinations often resemble aerobics class routines rather than reimagined ’50s moves.
David Gallo’s sets are wonderfully evocative, including an oversize radio dial that shows where a listener has to turn to get to the good music, and a playing space resembling a 45-rpm record, where a trio of singers perform. His use of television cameras when Huey gets his own TV show in Act 2 allows director Christopher Ashley to play with the tempo, something he should have been doing much sooner.
Music supervisor Christopher Jahnke gets a great sound from his orchestra, but “Memphis” is a musical that never finds its groove.