‘Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night” is a terrific song, one of many written by Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan for the invigorating rock ‘n’ bluesy new musical “Memphis.” That one song also suggests to me why this original musical with a book by Joe DiPietro (also co-lyricist) and directed by Christopher Ashley is quite good enough for a Saturday night’s diversion. That is only meant to suggest that those who want significance, substance, innovation, or profundity from their theater experience perhaps need to look elsewhere.
An extremely talented cast without a single name above the title has been collectively inspired to drive this original musical that happily isn’t a revival or a revamped movie musical. That’s right. It’s an original and that alone makes it deserving of extra points. Although the story was apparently inspired by real life DJ Dewey Phillip, who is credited for bringing “race” music to a white audience in the early 1950s, it is entirely fictional — and more than a bit facetious in the way the story is told. So if you don’t mind staying one step ahead of a predictable plot, embracing a likable score that is meant to sound familiar but really isn’t, and being in the company of some decidedly one-dimensional characters, then this lively, if also shallow, show should fill the bill.
Set appropriately in Tennessee, the plot revolves around Huey (Chad Kimball), a Memphis native who envisions himself more than a stock room clerk in a downtown department store. Frequenting the juke joints along Beale Street, he becomes intensely excited about the soulful and rockin’ music he hears there. He is soon driven by his passion to bring black music to a white audience.
The musical follows his rather meteoric rise from a top-of-the-dial DJ to mainstream radio to headlining a successful TV show. That the white teenagers are soon dancing in the streets to the music that had been considered to appeal only to blacks (shades of “Hairspray”) is all the inspiration that choreographer Sergio Trujillo needs to initiate a flow of athletic dances, including a little double Dutch rope jumping by teenagers in the street.
Huey’s mission to integrate black music into the mainstream inevitably gets complicated when he falls in love with pretty black singer, Felicia (Montego Glover), who belts out the blues in the dive run by her protective brother, Delray (J. Bernard Calloway). Glover establishes her vocal capabilities right off the bat singing the bluesy “Underground.” She grabs the attention of Huey, the white outsider, who wastes no time, as dangerous as it is, to reveal his feelings for her even as he plans to guide her career. If only Glover was not encouraged to end her songs with that primal scream that seems to have infected so many singers these days! And is that really 1950s style?
It isn’t surprising that Delray disapproves of Huey’s relationship with Felicia, as does Huey’s intolerant Mama (Cass Morgan), who, as you might suspect early on, is primed to have an eleven-o’clock breakthrough gospel number. As Delray, Calloway scores big in a dramatic duo (“She’s My Sister”) sung with Kimball, as does big man James Monroe Iglehart, as a fired-up janitor who not only dances but sings a rousing “Big Love” with rafter-shaking ease.
What gives this musical it’s most original touch, however, is the way Huey has been conceived as a virtually illiterate, almost nuttily compulsive eccentric. As played by a very game and garrulously impelled Kimball, Huey leaves no doubt in our minds that he isn’t meant to weather the prescribed denouement. Although Paul Tazewell has dressed the company smartly to the era, he might have to share credit with Barnum and Bailey for the get-ups that Huey wears.
While it may be accurate to say that the superficial takes precedence over the insightful in DiPietro’s script, it is also unashamedly an extension of the simplistic characters it serves. Bryan’s score can certainly be praised for capturing the pulse and the pop rockin’ rhythms of the era. I have no doubt that Bryan and DiPietro (collaborators on “The Toxic Avenger”) will be heard from again.
I am more inclined to attribute the real pleasure in this show to the vim and velocity of Ashley’s direction and to the work of choreographer Sergio Trujillo, who has created dances that are just as relentlessly energizing. David Gallo’s scenic designs, as admirably lighted by Howell Binkley, incorporate just enough visual ingenuity to evoke a radio and TV station, a shabby apartment, and the city streets. Just as in Memphis in the ’50s, you may want to shout “Hockadoo” as you leave the Shubert Theater. That word has as much meaning as the show, and that may just be enough.
“Memphis,” Shubert Theater, 225 West 44th Street. 212-239-6200.