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Pop sounds detract from gritty story in "Memphis"

Staff Writer

“Memphis” is the kind of Broadway musical you’ll like.

You’ll want to love it, but you’ll probably just like it.

On one level, “Memphis” - running through March 9 at the Broward Center - is about a 1950s radio jock named Huey Calhoun (Joey Elrose) who plays “race music” on white radio. On another level, it’s about the morphing of R&B into rock 'n' roll. All this is laid and played against the backdrop of Calhoun’s interracial relationship with Beale Street singer Felicia Farrell (Jasmin Richardson).

The book really moves, covering much ground in two hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission — fame, cultural revolution, segregation, racial violence, crossover hits, Christianity, the advent of TV — and manages to inject a fair amount of humor along the way. The biggest laughs come from Huey’s Mama (Pat Sibley) and his pals Gator (Avionce Hoyles) and Bobby (Jerrial T. Young), all of whom really, really know how to sell a punch line and drain every giggle out of a gag.

In 2010, “Memphis” won four Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical, another for Joe DiPietro’s script and two for David Bryan’s score. But for all the songs in the show where the word “soul” is evoked over and over, the sugary-sweet numbers never break the skin or rattle the rafters. It’s as if the audience never gets to hear what Huey hears, that driving sound that makes him recklessly share black music with the white side of town. And the gregarious choreography, which seems disconnected as if from another musical, doesn’t help (nor did the tinny sound, which is hardly the road tour's fault).

Perhaps Bryan (of Bon Jovi fame) is being too calculating with his compositions, eschewing gritty down-and-dirty blues for a strong pop sensibility as a concession to modern ears. It’s a savvy move. After all, he does have all those Tonys.

The two leads provide the best reason to see “Memphis.” Elrose may strain ever so slightly with the vocals, but his comedic timing is flawless, and he somehow manages to be cool, casual and crazy. Richardson’s voice cuts through like a young Leslie Uggams or Melba Moore: smoky sultry one moment, and shiny fiery the next.

Now, those two you’ll absolutely love.

“Memphis” is at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Through March 9, showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays. The show also will be staged 6:30 p.m. Sunday, March 2. Tickets cost from $34.50 to $79.50. Call 954-462-0222 or go to

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