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Telling the story of music with ... music

"Memphis," the immaculately polished Broadway musical about the racial integration of American pop music that racked up four Tony Awards in 2010, barrelled onto the stage of Shea's Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night for a six-day run.

It was a breathless evening, filled with soaring vocal performances from a hardworking cast, ebullient choreography and a story that took the audience on a journey through the fraught landscape of the pop music scene in 1950s Memphis and beyond.

The show centers on the quirky Memphis radio DJ Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), who turns his addiction to the forbidden rhythm and blues he hears in the smoky clubs on Beale Street into a citywide cultural phenomenon. Along the way, he meets a powerhouse black R&B singer named Felicia (Felicia Boswell) with whom he carries on a tortured affair that all too painfully mirrors the racial and cultural strife of the era.

The deeply idiosyncratic Calhoun, given a charming and constantly engrossing performance by Fenkart, is based on the pioneering Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, who was responsible for bringing blues and R&B into the Memphis mainstream. His story reflects that of a select few other American DJs and writers, who struggled to convince prejudiced white power-brokers that what was once derisively dismissed as "race music" deserved a wider audience.

When "Memphis" opened on Broadway in 2009, it was received by some as a kind of "Hairspray" for squares — a pretty package that was a little too prim and formulaic for the often ugly and complex issues it contained. But Joe DiPietro's book and (less often) his and composer David Bryan's lyrics paint a surprisingly nuanced picture of the volatile racial atmosphere of the time and the complex power of the profit motive in American culture. In "Memphis," greed is a paradoxical force that drives a wedge between the musical's central characters but also helps to draw a highly segregated country closer together.

That's a pretty accurate, if highly simplified, interpretation of the spirit of the popular music industry in the '50s, when integration was sometimes driven more by profit than by a true embrace of racial equality. In one scene, Huey's station manager Mr. Simmons (William Parry) captures this sense perfectly when he says he doesn't understand or care for the music or the people who create it, but because teenagers are buying it, "I'm gonna make me a [ton] of money." You almost see the cartoonish dollar signs gleaming in his eyes, a la Scrooge McDuck.

Performances by Fenkart, the brash and vocally gifted Boswell and one must-see show-stopping number by Julie Johnson as Calhoun's formerly racist mother elevate this production beyond typical Broadway fare. As does Sergio Trujillo's often irresistibly playful choreography, especially on songs like "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night" and "Radio."

Where "Memphis" falls down is in its consistently unexciting score by Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan, who penned a series of songs heavy on vocal fireworks but short on genuine soul. Bryan's R&B mimicry is of the same vintage as Henry Krieger's much more melodic work in "Dreamgirls," diluted by about half. In addition to their stylistic shortcomings, the songs too often sag under the weight of the show's narrative when they ought to be heightening the emotional states of its characters.

This balance between storytelling and emotion through song is a difficult one to strike, to be sure. But DiPietro, Bryan and original director Christopher Ashley would have done well to follow the lead of Des McAnuff, whose meticulously calibrated "Jersey Boys" provides a textbook for the best way to use music to tell a story about music. That is: Tell the story with the book, and let the music serve merely as an emotional extension of that story.

Despite these quibbles, "Memphis" pulls off the admirable feat of telling a compact and minimally distorted story about the beginnings of rock 'n' roll. The show makes an important statement not only about the rocky migration of music written and performed by African-Americans from the edge of the radio dial to the center, but about the glacially slow movement of a country away from its own deeply held prejudices.

email:? cdabkowski@buffnews.com

> THEATER REVIEW

Memphis

Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

A quirky radio DJ brings rhythm and blues into the mainstream in this musical by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan. Through Sunday in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets, $27.50 to $62.50; call ?847-0850 or visit www.sheas.org