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Jukebox musicals have become as common as dancebreaks in the past decade. Popular songs of yesteryear are strung together with a loose story to create a Broadway show that feels more like a scrapbook of memories than something memorable in its own right. Given this musical landscape, it’s a rare treat top find a show with all new songs that feel as if you’ve magically tuned into a 1950s radio station. Joe Dipietro and David Bryan (of Bon Jovi keyboard fame) have penned such a treat. Powerful songs that channel the tone and changes of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll are driven by a surprisingly emotional book in their Tony Award-winning musical Memphis.
Huey Calhoun, an irreverent DJ played by the talented Bryan Fenkart, falls in love with “black music” and a black woman – Felicia (played by the sultry Ms. Boswell of the same name). Loosely based on real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, Huey’s passions wouldn’t pose a problem had he been born in the past 30 years. But Tennessee in the 1950s kept black and white separate, and Huey’s graying passions weren’t apropos. Of course, Huey was never one for conforming; with a wardrobe that pairs plaid, tie-dye, and Hawaiian prints, he lives to mix things up.
With his own radio show, Huey plays the music he adores on the radio, and gets the whole city dancing. While integration laws were essential to enacting racial change, minds aren’t changed in Congress; they’re changed in dance halls and concert houses. Huey plays his part in racial integration by getting white folk singing and dancing to the songs of black folk, but in many ways, he was a bit ahead of his time. He catches the attention of TV execs who like his style, but not the company he keeps. They’ll give him his own primetime show on black-and-white TV (wonderfully dramatized on stage) as long as the performers are all white.
Not to spoil the story, but Memphis doesn’t fall victim to the happily-every-after, clichéd Broadway ending. The show doesn’t let the pieces come together perfectly for our hero, which makes it much more real and that much more heartbreaking. Light-on-his-feet and easy-on-the-ears, Huey possess the power to be heard and the rare youthful energy that makes you believe anything is possible – whether it’s falling in love, becoming a star, or changing the world. But believing and achieving are two separate tasks.
Memphis is not a jukebox musical, but don’t be surprised if you hear its songs on tomorrow’s jukeboxes. They be blaring loudly and irreverently as young couples like Huey and Felicia dance, kiss, and cry to the beat.
Memphis plays at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through December 4, 2011. Additional information and tickets available at www.BroadwayInChicago.com.