If all the Tony Award-winning “Memphis” had was its rollicking blend of blues and rootsy rock it would still be a crime to miss its current Broadway tour.
The musical offers so much more between the high notes.
“Memphis,” playing through Oct. 21 at the Buell Theatre in Denver before moving on to San Jose, Sacramento, Costa Mesa and more cities over the next eight months, carves out a fascinating love story rooted in the country’s ugliest racial wounds.
Self-important disk jockey Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) slips into a black blues bar one night, entranced by the music emanating from inside. He’s met with skeptical glances from the all-black crowd, but his eyes immediately seek out Felicia (Felicia Boswell).
“I wanted to see if you looked as pretty as you sound,” Huey tells her with a cocktail of sincerity and boastfulness.
The two connect, but they exist miles a part, culturally speaking. The races rarely mingle in ’50s era Tennessee, and both want every different things out of life.
Yet they meet – and meet again – and slowly their differences recede just enough for love to bloom.
“Memphis,” loosely based on the life of Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips and Alan Freed, opens with the somewhat flat “Underground” number. Nearly every subsequent song is a barn burner, particular the megaton bomb dubbed “Change Don’t Come Easy” anchored by Julie Johnson as Huey’s brassy Ma.
The story follows the main characters’ career arcs, realistic paths forged by talent, fate and fear. Huey’s shtick is like Howard Stern’s banter without the lesbians. He ignores unwritten radio by-laws and insists on bringing “race music” to the masses. Felicia just wants to sing and keep the peace, but her talent is simply too big for one town to contain her.
Music helps bring the races together in “Memphis,” much like in real life, and so does a heaping helping of capitalism. The radio station owner who hires Huey looks past potential conflicts as the greenbacks keep rolling in.
The production features dynamic musical numbers with crisp, inspired dancers bringing them to life. The music, co-created by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, incorporates sonic styles from the 1950s through today but still feels like it erupted from the era in play.
Fenkart and Boswell share a smoldering kiss early in the show, and you never doubt their connection despite the cultural forces tugging them in different directions. It’s a knotty romance with few easy answers, a testament to a show which constantly challenges audience expectations.
Boswell’s voice soars and flexes all at once, a booming force held in check by the singer’s perfect sense of restraint. Fenkart’s Huey is more caricature than lover at first, but he nails the character’s unbridled charisma and holds his own when singing alongside Boswell – no small feat.
The story loses some steam in the leap between the acts, but when Huey lands an “American Bandstand”-type TV show “Memphis” regains its authority.
“Memphis” is a product of the country’s painful past, and while it doesn’t flinch from the era’s bigotry and hate it doesn’t let those emotions overshadow these race-crossed lovers.