'Memphis' exuberantly chronicles the rise of RB

Associated Press Modified: October 19, 2009 at 6:01 pm •  Published: October 19, 2009
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NEW YORK (AP) — The sensuous, soulful sound of rhythm 'n' blues hits the audience right from the start of "Memphis," the exhilarating new musical now shaking Broadway's Shubert Theatre. Take a deep breath as the curtain rises because the exuberance doesn't stop.

But the show, which opened Monday, is as ambitious as it is entertaining, informative in a quasi-historical way as well as emotionally affecting in its parade of thoroughly engaging characters.

The time is the early 1950s when singers such as Perry Como and Patti Page ruled mainstream radio but in the black nightspots on Beale Street a different kind of song, so-called "race" music, rocked the house.

Into one such juke joint tumbles Huey Calhoun, a poor but street-smart white boy with the heart of a hustler and a love for this music. It's a passion that eventually will power him into a job as the most important disc jockey in Memphis — the man who brought black music to a white audience.

Hugh's rise to pop-music prominence coincides with a more personal tale: his affair with a black club singer named Felicia, definitely a problem during a time when interracial marriage was illegal in many states.

Book writer Joe DiPietro skillfully intertwines these stories. And with composer David Bryan (they co-wrote the lyrics), the two have managed to create a dandy original score that is as tuneful as it is theatrical, the very essence of what a Broadway musical should be. Bryan, keyboard player for Bon Jovi, has a gift for effortless melody and the orchestrations, which he co-wrote with Daryl Waters, makes the music — check out those horns — sound as if it could have first been heard in the '50s.

But then it helps also that "Memphis" has been expertly cast and is superbly sung, particularly by its two leads, Chad Kimball as the brash, irrepressible Huey and a striking Montego Glover as Felicia. Kimball has a deceptive baby-face charm that masks a gritty, soul-tinged voice and the hard edge of Huey's stubborn personality that is not entirely likable.

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