Theater Review: "Memphis" rolls along, but never rocks

Bryan Fenkart plays Huey in "Memphis." Photo by Paul Kolnik

"Memphis" has come to Miami, and it is mostly a good thing.

Loosely based on the story of 1950s radio jock Dewey Phillips, the musical about the morphing of R&B into rock 'n' roll against the backdrop of an interracial relationship is at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts this week for a limited engagement.

You’ll like it. But you won’t love it.

That won't be the fault of the musical’s book, which covers plenty of territory and dips its toes into waters as muddy as the Mississippi: that of crossover chart-toppers; Beale Street's storied music scene; integration and apartheid; racial violence; and Christianity.


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The cast is energetic and willing, making the most of the pedestrian choreography and by-the-numbers staging. The couple at the center of the story — R&B singer Felicia Farrell (played opening night by Kelcy Griffin) and radio jock Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) — are equally adept at the drama and the comedy. Although it must be said that Griffin, while possessing stunning Kewpie-doll looks, has a voice lacking in star quality (her lower register is quite lovely, however). Fenkart gives a performance vibrating with voltage, singing with a buzzy purr and occasionally dancing like Ichabod Crane on ecstasy.

But the Tony-winning original score (it was up against "The Addams Family," "Enron" and "Fences") by Bon Jovi founding member David Bryan and Joe DiPietro just doesn't stir your soul.

This is at odds with the spark of the play, in which Huey is so carried away with the music from the black side of town that he just has to share it with the white side of town, first on radio and then on TV.

Even with a thumpin' and pumpin' band upstage, the score never gets gritty or meaty enough, spun instead as sugary-sweet and pop-thin as cotton candy.

Strangely inert and unaffecting, the musical includes only a few tunes that stick with you after the curtain call: "The Music of My Soul," "Someday" and the closing number, "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll," which sounds as if it's from another musical (e.g., "Hairspray").

Calhoun's Mama, played by a delicious Julie Johnson, delivers a bring-down-the house rendition of "Change Don’t Come Easy," but that has more to do with the performance than the song.

Don't misread this. "Memphis" is a good show about a fascinating, if unflattering, chunk of contemporary history.

Good, yes.

It's just not great.

"Memphis" will run through Sunday, May 12, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets start at $26. Call 305-949-6722 or go toArshtCenter.org.