Motormouth disc jockey Dewey Phillips fell in love with the sound of rhythm and blues and blithely crossed the color line in 1949 when he put “race music” on the air during his Memphis radio show titled “Red, Hot and Blue.”
The move shocked and horrified the station owner, but was an instant success and made Phillips the king of Memphis radio. In the process, a new, crossover form of pop music burst onto the scene: rock ’n’ roll, quickly adopted by white singers like Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
David Bryan and Jo DiPetro tried out their new musical “Memphis,” based on Dewey’s story, at La Jolla Playhouse in 2008. It went on to a lengthy, almost three-year run on Broadway, where it will close Aug. 5, just a week after the touring show closes at San Diego Civic Theatre.
Phillips’ dramatic stand-in is Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), a skinny paleface with a stream-of-consciousness delivery and no fashion sense whatever, who one night in 1951 dares enter the basement club owned by Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington) just because he likes the music.
“I wanted to see if you look as pretty as you sound,” he offers, looking perhaps a little too pointedly at Delray’s sister Felicia (Felicia Boswell).
On guard for problem situations, the skeptical Delray asks Huey, “Don’t you notice any difference between you and the rest of us?”
“Memphis” is a toe-tapping triumph, with more intricate and athletic choreography (by Sergio Trujillo) than we saw before, and a powerhouse cast that does the book and the music (by David Bryan and Joe DiPetro) proud.
This show is mostly about music, though the invented romance between Huey and Felicia also offers Huey the chance to comment on the Jim Crow racial climate of the time.
Fenkart, a singer/songwriter in his own right, is terrific as the guileless Huey, who has trouble keeping a job but finally finds his niche in spinning rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Fenkart has a terrific set of tenor pipes, and though the script doesn’t offer many clues about the genesis of his interest in “black music,” he sure knows how to put across a song.
Boswell, whose character’s name is also Felicia, will make your hair stand on end with her take-no-prisoners voice, or make you weep with a ballad like “Colored Woman.”
Darrington’s strong baritone gets a workout on “She’s My Sister,” and Julie Johnson, playing Huey’s straight-laced (for a while) Mama, lets loose on “Change Don’t Come Easy.”
David Gallo’s set and Howell Binkley’s lighting designs are excellent as well; the nine-member band led by Alvin Hough Jr. blasts away, making it nearly impossible to sit still. Only the sound level, set so high that the lyrics are often muffled, detracts from this terrific show.
Another La Jolla Playhouse export has returned home. If you missed it last time, this is your chance. And if you saw it last time, you’ll want to revisit “Memphis.”
“Memphis” runs through July 29 at San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown.
Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6 pm.