Not everything in "Memphis" is black and white. Though the gawky musical tale of forbidden love offers up a fair amount of the blues, there's also a whole lot of grey matter between the crimson walls that flank the Opera House stage.
The Kennedy Center plays host to its first national touring company, and while the Great White Way is chockfull of regurgitated movie adaptations and a jumble of jukebox juggernauts, "Memphis" stood out like a peacock in the 2009 season, seizing the Tony Award for Best Musical the following June.
Just like every young American couple, Huey Calhoun and Felicia Farrell want what every pair of sweethearts wants -- carefree days of basking in each other and fulfilling a shared dream of walking the shores of Coney Island. Their 1950s Memphis is a hotbed of cool rhythm and blues, where Felicia brings the downtown Memphis sound to her brother's Beale Street club and Huey finds his home on the radio dial. The Southern drama begins when Huey becomes the first disc jockey to play "race records," sparking a trend that caught on like wildfire. As Huey works his way up the ranks and uses his influence to advance Felicia's singing career, everything seems perfectly aligned for our amorous duo. The only problem? Huey is white and Felicia is black.
The whole affair could be infinitely more engaging if it didn't feel so contrived and superficial with its one-dimensional characters and cardboard scenery. Christopher Ashley's direction produces the kind of music theater that leaves you wondering whether the fog machine is really necessary to heighten the hero's plight. The story line is woefully predictable, and the show lacks a proper antagonist in the same way it doesn't give us anyone to cheer for -- sure, we're supposed to care about Huey and Felicia, but here the narrow-minded Mama (the comically gifted Julie Johnson) is left with the burden of representing the entire white population, circa 1950s Tennessee.
|If you go|
|» Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW|
|» When: Through July 1|
|» Info: $35 to $115; 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324; kennedy-center.org|
To be fair, "Memphis" has its moments -- at least it's original and there's no lack of talent or earnest effort from the cast headed by Felicia Boswell. While Bryan Fenkart's Huey lives up to his corny caricature, Boswell's voice is like liquid candy, particularly in her joyful upper range.
"Black people sing like white people can't," claims Mama, and here in the midst of a budding interracial romance, it's the only thing worth debating in this sweet but not soulful work.