Broadway San Jose opened its 2012 – 2013 season October 23 with the Tony award-winning musical “Memphis” at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.
“Memphis” has come home all polished and sophisticated after opening in 2004 at TheatreWorks, Mountain View, and making it to Broadway in 2009, where it won four Tony Awards in 2010—Best Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score, and Best Orchestrations.
The opening night San Jose audience started applauding and cheering before the curtain even went up. They were ready to enjoy themselves. And they did. They loved all 2 1/2 hours of this moving (in more ways than one!) rock ‘n’ roll musical with a taboo love story, and they gave it a standing ovation at the end.
Set in segregated Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1950s, “Memphis” is about Huey Calhoun, an illiterate young white man who can’t hold a job until he finds his niche as an uninhibited radio disc jockey who shocks and rocks white Memphis by playing what was then called “race” music. Huey hears the “Negro” rhythm and blues/ rock ‘n’ roll music at a black underground night club and is the first DJ to introduce it to Memphis, starting with “Everybody Wants To Be Black on a Saturday Night.” The white teenagers love the music and send Huey’s WHDZ radio show to the top of the airway charts. Huey, however, goes too far for the times when he falls in love with Felicia, a beautiful and black singer who wants to be a star and is the sister of Beale Street Club owner, Delray. Huey and Felicia’s taboo love is ill-fated in this story that was inspired by a real Memphis DJ.
In Act I, electrifying music and dance draw me “Underground” along with Huey into a place where he doesn’t look like he belongs, and he certainly isn’t wanted. And there in the smoky, all-black club, Huey isn’t the only one drawn to Felicia. I was mesmerized by her as she and Huey sing “The Music of My Soul” and “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Kiss.”
“Memphis” has its share of laughs, too. “When do you know a man is lying?” asks Felicia as she first sizes up Huey. “When he opens his mouth.”
Knowing the history of the 1950s, I am uneasy for Huey and Felicia. Yet as their mutual attraction grows, I hope that this particular inter-racial love story will somehow have a happy ending. Huey’s prejudiced mom—a dowdy and hard-working widow— is no happier than Felicia’s brother about her son being involved with “a colored girl.” By now Huey is a successful DJ, and when Felicia finally has enough money to cut a record for him to play on his radio show, she takes it to his house to surprise him. She is surprised at the humbleness of his home. His mom walks in and surprises them and breaks the record, so Felicia ends up singing live on the air. Afterwards, despite Felicia’s protests, Huey kisses her on the street while it’s still light out. A gang of white men see them, and they beat up Felicia. There are a number of interesting character transformations in “Memphis.” One comes at the end of Act 1. At the club, when Delray holds Huey responsible for Felicia’s attack and starts beating up on him, a club regular named Gator, who never ever talks, suddenly speaks up to stop the fight, singing “Say a Prayer.” From then on, Gator’s character blossoms.
In Act II, Huey’s successful radio show leads to his hosting a successful all-negro TV show for teenagers. Huey hires his friends from the night club, including a big guy named Bobby who astounds all of us in the real audience with his nimble dance maneuvers. Felicia ends up going to New York City chasing stardom. Huey’s mom has transformed herself into a stylish matron and no longer has to work. She now accepts Felicia and urges Huey to go with her to New York. Felicia argues that they can be together openly in the North. However, he refuses to leave Memphis, even for Felicia, and sings “Memphis Lives in Me.” As “race” music becomes mainstream and Huey is no longer unique, his career goes downhill.
Four years later, Felicia is a star and returns to Memphis to do a big show. She visits Huey to invite him to be in her show. When he asks, she admits that she has a fiancée. (I wonder if he’s white? We aren’t told.) At first Huey refuses to go on stage with Felicia, but finally he agrees and, in the experience, regains a glimmer of hope for his life, and everybody on stage sings “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll” for the finale.
As with all musicals, the live music is loud, so I couldn’t understand some of the lyrics, but it didn’t matter. The music and dancing are exciting, and the story is compelling. Visit www.broadwaysanjose.com for tickets ASAP because the run is short—through October 28— and you definitely don’t want to miss this Tony winner while it’s here from Broadway with its national road tour company.