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.
Glover is quite a revelation, too, as the ambitious Felicia, a singer who sees a chance for a recording contract as her way out of Memphis and into the big time. The actress has a commanding stage presence and can curl her voice around a song, whether it is the rockin' "Underground," which opens the show, or a cry of pain called "Colored Woman."
Director Christopher Ashley has surrounded his stars with a talented, distinctive supporting cast: J. Bernard Calloway as Felicia's protective brother; Derrick Baskin as a loyal if silent club employee; James Monroe Iglehart as a large, late-blooming singer; Cass Morgan as Huey's initially unsupportive mother; and Michael McGrath as a hard-boiled radio station owner.
"Memphis" is a big show with a large cast (more than two dozen actors) and David Gallo's multiple sets ranging from that Beale Street dive to radio and television studios. But Ashley makes it all move with surprising speed.
Even Gallo's settings swirl effortlessly, but then the musical has an innate energy, much of it supplied by Sergio Trujillo's propulsive choreography. There's a sinuous, sexy quality to the dancing that perfectly matches the music, and the dancers are among the hottest in town.
A bit of "Dreamgirls" and maybe even "Hairspray" can be found in the show's show-biz and race relations roots. But make no mistake, "Memphis" is its own musical, a potent reminder of what can happen when fine song and dance combine with a compelling story.