Those of us with hypercritical minds might walk into NETworks' touring production of "Memphis" at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts with a few questions weighing us down. Is a feel-good, dance-driven musical the best way to explore America's complex history of racism? Do we really need another story about racial persecution told from the perspective of a white person? And isn't this just a blatant rip-off of "Hairspray"?
For now, forget those. You'll have plenty of time to debate them over a pint at Humpy's after the show. And once the powerhouse opening number, "Underground," starts, you'll have trouble even remembering them.
"Memphis," which won the 2010 Tony Award for best musical (and best book and best original score, among others), follows Huey Calhoun (Joey Elrose), an ebullient hillbilly-type kid with a passion for rhythm and blues, referred to with contempt as "race music" or "colored music" by most other white people in 1950s Memphis. (His character is based on Dewey Phillips, a pioneering '50s Memphis DJ who was the first to play Elvis Presley's debut record and brought music by both black and white artists to the masses.)
After sneaking into a black club, Huey falls in love with an up-and-coming singer, Felicia (Jasmin Richardson), and promises to get her on the air. His wild antics and ear for infectious pop hits land him his own radio show, where he shocks and enthralls the city by promoting black artists.
Despite their semi-secret interracial relationship, Huey and Felicia rise to fame on separate tracks: she in the studio, he on TV. But the bigger they get, the more they drift apart -- and realize that while Memphis might be willing to poke some holes in the color barrier, America is not. The finale is a combination of the raw energy of their early days and a sense of wistfulness for what might have been.
The book, written by Joe DiPietro, is smart and slick, and thankfully avoids the corny one-liners that so many contemporary Broadway musicals rely on to fill the gaps between songs. It masters the balance between exposition and musical numbers and could stand on its own without the songs. But who would want it to?
The music, written by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, is a wildly energetic romp through the golden age of rhythm and blues, girl groups and early rock 'n' roll. If you don't find yourself tapping your feet to songs like "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night" and "Scratch My Itch," you should probably see a doctor.
The stellar music is complemented by equally forceful dancing, with a talented ensemble playing everyone from club patrons to TV dancers to a gospel choir. And during the aforementioned "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night," three featured dancers shake, shimmy and squeal enough to give Little Richard a run for his money.
On stage for virtually the entire show, Joey Elrose is so spot-on as the manic Huey you'd think the role was written specifically for him. As he pulls a series of crazy stunts - dancing on counters in a department store, breaking into a DJ booth and hijacking the show, taking off his clothes on TV -- we can't help but root for the charmingly unhinged guy. In the hands of a less dedicated performer, this role would fall flat, but Elrose gives us more than enough energy.
While Felicia isn't nearly as effusive as Huey, Jasmin Richardson imbues the role with an eager intensity and a remarkable singing talent. Having toured internationally with "Dreamgirls," Richardson is clearly at the top of her game, and here she treats us to one spine-tingling solo after another.
Rounding out the cast are a number of supporting characters that are surprisingly well-developed for a Broadway musical -- roles that lend themselves to strong character acting. And this production takes full advantage of that. The most outstanding supporting performance is that of Avionce Hoyles as Gator, a club regular who has been mute since witnessing his father's lynching. Throughout Act 1, he mostly serves as a source of comic relief. But at the act's finale, when a major character has been severely beaten, Gator lets loose and delivers a revelatory song pleading for peace ("Say a Prayer"). This moment is pure theatrical magic, and tops every other high moment in the show -- which is really saying something, since the high points in "Memphis" are stratospheric.
Another fantastic performance comes from Pat Sibley as Huey's frumpy mother. While she strongly disapproves of Huey's relationship with a black woman, a visit to a black church loosens up her tightly-wound thoughts - and hips ("Change Don't Come Easy"). There are few sights more entertaining than watching a dowdy old white lady get down.
While many will take issue with the show's treatment of race relations and the fact that it is, indeed, a brazen "Hairspray" rip-off (albeit a very good one), this production of "Memphis" not only nails the feel-good Broadway musical formula, it stretches it to new heights.
Perhaps the best indication of this production's success was the standing ovation the cast received at the matinee I attended. When a show can get an entire theater full of notoriously reserved Anchorage theatergoers on their feet, clapping and singing along, you know they're doing something right.
"Memphis" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday in Atwood Concert Hall. Tickets are available at centertix.net.
By EGAN MILLARD