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'Memphis' opens Broadway Series
Musical plays through Sunday at Community Center Theater in Sacramento
TIMES: 2 p.m. today and Saturday-Sunday; 8 p.m. today-Saturday
WHERE: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento
TICKETS: Start at $34
CALL: 916-808-5181 or 916-557-1999
ONLINE: Broadway Sacramento.com
When you think about the globalization of music today, it's hard to believe that it was so rigidly compartmentalized on this continent, not by style but color — of the musicians and singers.
"Memphis" opened Tuesday, kicking off the California Musical Theatre's 2012-13 Broadway Series with a show that threads the mainstreaming of American rhythm and blues with the ugly head of racism.
Set in Memphis in the '50s, when AM radio ruled the airwaves at a time when Perry Como and Patti Page were the mainstays and stations were designated by race, this 2-1⁄2 hour production is based on George W. George's concept and Joe DiPietro's book and lyrics.
When Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) walks by an underground rhythm and blues bar, he is smitten — initially by the music and then by the singer, Felicia Farrell (Felicia Boswell). Boswell's voice doesn't really shine until midway into the first act, but when she opens up, her voice is jaw-dropping, especially when she sings acappella.
Under the direction of Christopher Ashley, Fenkart brings Huey to life as a dweeb in his fashion sense and naïve honesty. He goes where he shouldn't — where he's the only white person — and then lauds the music and the bar owner's sister. Out loud. Uh-oh.
Plucky and persistent, he proclaims this to be "the music of his soul" and fired with a determination, Huey manages to get "race" music moving and grooving in a major department store when he takes the helm of the record section to sell a huge number of 45 discs.
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo took advantage of the herky-jerky beat of "Scratch My Itch" as shoppers, seemingly possessed by the music, get their groove on in the store aisles. No wonder "Memphis" scooped the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical.
David Bryan's music and lyrics punctuate "Memphis" with 20 tunes that had the audience head-bobbing and toe tapping as the show grows the forbidden love story between Huey and Felicia.
But the race issue thwarts their love in the shape of Huey's mom, played by Julie Johnson, who has some bluesy pipes of her own, and Delray (Horace V. Rogers), Felicia's older and very protective brother.
The plucky Huey plods on, locking a mainstream radio DJ out of his booth and spinning "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night," again causing an uproar as he flouts the racial mores, much to the delight of the young folks who love the "race music." His ultimate goal is get Felicia's music on the radio, and when his mother breaks Felicia's freshly minted record, Huey arranges for his girl to sing live over the air.
Things swim along as Huey, who only made it through the ninth grade, buys his waitress mother a house, with cash left to purchase an engagement ring. Even though Felicia resists, reminding Huey about the laws against their marrying, she relents — but their kiss leads to a tragic evening at the hospital.
Relentless, Huey moves from radio to television as the host of an afternoon, all-Negro show as he becomes the big man in Memphis. But he can't love Felicia legally there, so "Memphis" becomes a jail where he has to choose between the "music of his soul" and the woman he loves.
"Memphis" runs through Sunday.