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Broadway in Utah: 'Memphis' tells of making black music cool — before Elvis

Published May 27, 2014 8:59 am

Stage • Broadway musical's new score makes the 1950s race card relevant — again.
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Don't mistake "Memphis" for a jukebox musical. Instead, the high-energy show features an original Tony Award-winning score evocative of the ground-breaking pop music of the early 1950s, birthed at a time in the segregated South when white people just didn't listen to black music.

Hear the trumpets and trombones wailing away in underground black clubs. Hear the rockin' gospel of African-American churches and the sweet bebop of girl-group harmonies. That mix rocks the soundtrack for the story of a forbidden love affair between a white DJ and a black superstar singer.

"Memphis" follows a rebellious, cocky white DJ, Huey Calhoun, who introduces black music to white radio listeners. The show was loosely inspired by the popular 1950s-era Memphis disc jockey "Daddy-O" Dewey Phillips, although the love story plot was apparently totally fabricated.

In real life, Phillips was so influential that after he suffered a major car accident, radio equipment was brought to his hospital room so he could broadcast his show from his hospital bed.

In the musical, while white kids are falling in love with the black music Calhoun plays on the radio, the DJ is falling in love with singer Felicia Farrell, who performs at her brother Delray's club.

"People have been loving it everywhere," says Adam Arian, director of the touring show. He has worked with the show for five years, previously assisting Broadway director Christopher Ashley.

"I think the main appeal of 'Memphis' is that it is a real story, told from the heart, about a piece of American history that is still very relevant to us today."

After all, the musical's song "Say a Prayer That Change Is Coming" could have been sung at President Barack Obama's campaign rallies. And the song sounded with fresh relevance when this tour of "Memphis" was launched in Boise last fall, as lawsuits were being debated in American courtrooms about the legality of same-sex marriages.

When Kurt Bestor saw the show on Broadway, the Utah composer was impressed by the energy in David Bryan's music — Bryan is the keyboard player for Bon Jovi — and how it evoked such a fertile, seminal era in pop music.

That energy courses through Joey Elrose's lead performance as Huey Calhoun, Arian says. Beyond great voices, the director praised the cast's stamina, required by a tour that often travels in a bus all day or sets down in cities for only one night.

"They're great talents, and they have a great outlook about remembering why they are doing this," the director says. "You never see them looking tired or complaining."

Across the country, theatergoers haven't always known much in advance about the show, which opens with the blockbuster song-and-dance number "Underground." Audiences are surprised, often gasping, at the show's casual and ugly depiction of segregation, such as when characters use the "n-word," or when a white girl is slapped and reprimanded for listening to "race music."

For Elrose, 27, who grew up in Queens and toured as an understudy with the national tours of "Rock of Ages" and "Grease," playing Calhoun is a chance to grab the spotlight. Or as his mother said when he earned the lead role: "Oh, Joey, you've always been a bridesgroom, and now you get to be the bride."

It's such a big role that once Huey Calhoun steps onstage, the character doesn't leave it. When the actor met "Memphis" writer Joe DiPietro, DiPietro apologized for not writing a subplot.

But Elrose says that's OK: "I'm getting my cardio in." And in the second act, when his character is depicted drinking from a flask, Elrose is grateful to have a chance to gulp down some water.

Stepping into the role was a bit intimidating, he says, especially since the lead in the Broadway cast, Chad Kimball, earned a Tony nomination.

He says he's worked hard to make his portrayal of Huey his own during what will be the tour's 222-show run. Elrose's Huey Calhoun has a bit more of a street-smart edge than earlier portrayals. "He's a 1950s man still, but I try to be really stern and stubborn," Elrose says. "I'm just a silly person in general, and you see layers of that, too."

For the actor, "Memphis" highlights include a flirtatious scene in Act 1 between his character and Felicia, played by Jasmin Richardson, which introduces her solo "Colored Woman"; a mostly dance number, "Radio," which explores how music bridges the gap between races; and "Tear Down the House," where Calhoun defies his producer to hire black dancers for his TV show.

Bestor has one hint for Salt Lake City audiences of the musical: Pick up some Memphis-style barbecue ribs before the show.


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'Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night'

The nationally touring show of "Memphis," which won four Tony Awards in 2010 including Best Musical and Best Original Score (by David Bryan, the keyboardist for Bon Jovi, and Joe DiPietro), plays in Salt Lake City. Set in segregated Memphis in 1952, the musical tells the story of a white DJ (the story is loosely based on "Daddy-O" Dewey Phillips) who introduces black music to stations in the middle of the radio dial.

When • May 27-June 1: Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 6:30 p.m.; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.

Where • Capitol Theater, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $37.50-$60 (plus fees ranging from $3-$8.50) ; 801-355-2787; arttix.org