Like that awkwardly funny DJ Huey Calhoun, "Memphis" might seem rough around the edges. But that fantastic cast — Huey would say "fantastical" — makes this the best of Artist Series' Broadway season.
Yes, those spectacular blue guys from Blue Man Group invited me on stage in January, but I'll still take the sometimes sweet and sometimes sultry sounds of "Memphis." Presented by Artist Series, the production continues through March 23 at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown Jacksonville.
In 1950s Memphis, white DJ Huey falls hard for black club singer Felicia Farrell, and he's eager to help her get on the radio, though he has to get there first. He finds his ticket to stardom while playing "race music" for white folks and helping give birth to rock 'n' roll.
Huey and Felicia are a mismatched pair, not only because he's a graceless doofus and she's a true talent, but also because this is the segregated South.
In the early scenes, Joey Elrose portrays awkward so well, I was beginning to doubt he could pull off the transformation to DJ star. He proved me wrong.
Jasmin Richardson's voice would lift any cast. Her "Someday" and "Colored Woman" along with her part in "The Music of My Soul" are moving.
This cast is full of scene-stealers from Avionce Hoyles as Gator, belting out "Say a Prayer" to close the first act, to Jerrial T. Young as Bobby delivering a resounding "Big Love." He also displays some amazing moves.
Joe DiPietro's story proves more raw than expected with one beating and one use of the N-word that drew gasps from the opening night audience.
Even when the tone is light, this is Memphis in the 1950s, so we go from "hockadoo!" to "hock-a-fucking-doo" in no time.
Historians of rock 'n' roll might notice the story is based on real-life DJ Dewey Phillips, remembered for being the first to play a record of a young Elvis Presley. Phillips later asks Presley on air what high school he attended to make sure listeners knew Elvis was white, and "Memphis" plays off that moment.
In this touring musical, the forbidden interracial romance carries the plot while Huey and Felicia pursue their dreams. Huey is the more willing of the two to take the romance all the way, asking his love, “Since when did I get blacker than you?”
Felicia reminds him, "I’m colored every time I step out the door.”
If you're looking for a misstep, "Memphis" loses a little momentum in the second act before ending with a bang in "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll." And there was that line at the restrooms during intermission. Not much to nitpick here.
"Memphis" truly stays hot with a stellar cast and a rockin' score.