'Memphis, the Musical' Deftly Captures How Rhythm and Blues Gave Birth to Rock

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click to enlarge 'Memphis, the Musical' Deftly Captures How Rhythm and Blues Gave Birth to Rock
Courtesy Cain Park

There are a few good reasons to see Memphis, the Musical now at Cain Park. But none of them have to do with the story and how it rolls out. This is not to say that the tale of a white man who actively promoted African-American “race music” in the 1950s isn’t interesting. It is quite intriguing, since it’s based on the real story of a man named Dewey Phillips, a Memphis disc jockey.

It’s just that his story, along with that of Felicia Farrell, a dazzling young black singer, is related in such a predicable manner you could write it in your sleep. And that may be what Joe DiPietro did, who also co-wrote the lyrics, since every dramatic curve and plot turn can be seen coming from a mile away.

But none of that was enough to keep Memphis from winning the 2010 Tony for best musical, and it shouldn’t be enough to stop you from visiting the Alma Theater on the Cain Park campus and delving into this professional, virtually airtight production directed by the estimable Joanna May Cullinan.

The original music composed by David Bryan, keyboard player for Bon Jovi, is a blessed relief from so many of the jukebox musicals that are often employed to tell the story of the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll. While not every one of his songs is memorable, there are certain pieces that definitely rock the house. But more importantly, the entire score deftly captures the essence of how black rhythm and blues songs were “sped up” and became what we know as rock music.

It all begins in a Beale Street dive, owned and named after a black man named Delray that is frequented by many in the Memphis black community. And in walks Huey (who is the Dewey character. There is no Louie, sadly.), and this unassuming white guy stands out like, well, a white guy in a black bar. Remember, this was the early-to-mid 1950s, a time when racial separation was the rule of the day.

After some initial resistance, Huey warms up the patrons by singing “Music of My Soul,” a tribute to the black music that is overwhelming the bland white music dominating the pop charts at the time. Soon, Huey wrangles his way into a temporary gig at a local radio station, a white music station sitting securely in “the middle of the dial.” (Note to young people: who listen to music on their phones: Radios once had dials that you turned to select different stations. And the primo stations were in the middle of that dial. What’s a radio? Oh, forget about it.)

Along the way, Huey meets and is smitten by Felicia Farrell, Delray’s sister and one of the featured singers at the club. The white man’s attentions and intentions are noted by Delray and others in the bar, much to their consternation. But Huey is not a man who is easily put off.

That idea comes through with powerful clarity due to the performance of Douglas F. Bailey II as Huey. Sporting a posture that is best described as a perpetual slump and a speaking voice that makes every sentence sound like a whiny question, Bailey’s Huey always seems like a mangy dog that has just been beaten and left out in the rain. But as this whole show demonstrates, you shouldn’t judge people by how they look. It turns out that Huey has a will of iron when it comes to defending the music he loves and pursuing the woman of his dreams.

After Huey sneaks some black music onto a white radio station, and the phones are jammed with positive white reaction, the storyline progresses just as you would expect. But that’s okay since Bailey is a kickass rock singer who is matched and then exceeded by Nicole Sumlin who plays Felicia.

Of course, Felicia has most of the good songs, but Sumlin turns each of them into gleaming gems. This is particularly true with “Someday,” the song she sings live on Huey’s radio show, at the moment when she and Huey bond and the black music takes over the Memphis airwaves. Huey’s radio show is soon number one in the market, and his relationship with Felicia is soon also #1 with a bullet. But that won’t last, as you knew it wouldn’t.

Bailey and Sumlin are supported admirably by a large cast and stellar performances in key roles. Among those are Anthony Savage-Williams as Delray, the fearsomely energetic Elijah Dawson as Huey’s black friend Bobby, and Chris Richards as Mr. Simmons, the white owner of the radio station who is won over by the money Huey’s black music is bringing in. Also, music director Jordan Cooper and choreographer Leilani Barrett keep the energy pumping—even through a second act that isn’t nearly as compelling as Act One.

Yes, eventually the familiarity of the story wears thin, particularly in the final moment of reconciliation between Huey and Felicia. But never mind, the performances are king in this show, and those are spectacular.

Memphis, The Musical
Through July 1 at Cain Park, Alma Theater, Superior Road between Lee Road and South Taylor Road in Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000, ticketmaster.com.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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