Memphis, the 2010 Tony winner for Best Musical now playing at L.A.’s Pantages Theatre as part of the show’s ongoing national tour, may be set in the racially volatile city of Memphis in the 1950s, but it’s also among the least controversial musicals out there. (Here’s our original review of the Broadway production.)
The story centers on Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), a white DJ hoping to introduce white Memphis to black music — while falling for a black nightclub singer named Felicia (Felicia Boswell). Like a grown-up version of Hairspray — sans drag — Memphis boils down Jim Crow-era race relations to a song or two. Joe DiPietro’s plot is predictable and what tension there is between the characters is obviously going to be resolved by the final curtain. Even the show’s obligatory hate crimes can’t shake the sense that it’s all going to work out in the end. It is a musical, after all.
But that predictability means there’s not much to object to, either. The show doesn’t challenge the audience to think about the political conflicts of the era or address anything beyond the obvious — that discrimination wasn’t our nation’s finest moment. The fun music, by Bon Jovi founding member David Bryan, jumps oddly all over the map for inspiration, from ’50s- or ’60s-sounding rock, soul, and jazz to more modern R&B-ish tunes. But at least the score is refreshingly new, unlike the jukebox musicals that have defined stories about this time period (Smokey Joe’s Café, Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet).
Fenkart plays up the hillbilly stylings of Calhoun with ease, and turns from greasy-haired DJ to on-air personality to down-on-his-luck has-been with a sense of humor and solid vocals. But the standout performance — despite sporting over-the-top Minnie Mouse-like makeup — is Boswell, who brings pizazz and a very big voice to the female lead. As Huey’s Mama, Julie Johnson camps it up like Paula Deen going to a gospel church; she gets the most laughs of the night with her big number, ”Change Don’t Come Easy.” The final number, ”Steal Your Rock ‘n Roll,” is just catchy enough to have you humming it out of the theater, but you may not remember it the next morning. B
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-982-2787)