Sharecropper Country

When rock ’n’ roll first hit the scene, hipsters swore that “things’s gonna get REAL GONE for a change.” Although it felt born full grown to those it blew away, rock ’n’ roll didn’t spring from Zeus’s — or, more apt, Dionysus’s — thigh. It required a small band of intrepid disc jockeys to cross borders and spread the feisty news.

Among the originals was Memphis’s Dewey Phillips. These days, he’s famous for being the first deejay to play a record by Elvis (July 1954: “That’s All Right, Mama”). But “Daddy-O Dewey” fought an offbeat crusade for the music he called “red, hot, and blue.” A manic cat, he moved at 78 rpm in a world stuck on 33 1/3. Phillips loved playing the new music to his “good people” so much he didn’t just sing along during a broadcast, he shrieked the lyrics. He died of heart failure at age 42: the Elvis of deejays.

Joe DiPietro’s and David Bryan’s Memphis pays a double tribute: to the Phillips-like vanguard of deejays whose hearts ran miles ahead of the times and to the city of Elvis, B.B. King, and Johnny Cash, which has been a magnet not just for rock ’n’ roll, but also blues, gospel, “sharecropper” country (as opposed to Nashville’s “rhinestone”), and crunk. Beale Street’s famous for the blues and late-night levitation. As Bette Midler sings in “The Rose,” “When it’s midnight in Memphis, it’s a long, long time before the day.”

Back in the 1950s, one of the few reasons blacks could cross Crump Street with impunity, and go from the South Memphis ghetto to the city, was to make music. Memphis begins in Delray’s all-black basement club on Beale. In swerves a white kid. Wearing pseudo-hipster clothes (tiger stripes being probably the closest he could approximate to the real deal in these parts), he must be high on something. He weaves down the stairs in awe, like a space-cased Moses in his Promised Land. He’s Huey Calhoun (i.e., Phillips), and he finally has the guts to cross the other color barrier and go underground.

At the La Jolla Playhouse, the instant that Chad Kimball slinks down the stairs as Huey, the excellent production creates a kind of reverse history: most people know something about early rock ’n’ roll, but who’s the odd bird? You don’t see his like these days. At first he seems suspicious. Is he a flim-flammer working angles or one of those conniving record agents who ransacked black music of the ’50s and ’60s, made white “cover” records, and never paid a cent for the copyright?

In that first scene, Kimball establishes not only Huey’s idiosyncrasies but also his bone-honest sincerity. Throughout the show, Kimball runs amok. He rocks every tune (just when you think he’s hit his highest note, he shoots up an octave) and moves as if he’s SDG&E’s power grid. Kimball’s performance is — a word misused these days to praise trivial things — awesome.

Memphis tells of several crossovers. Huey falls for Felicia, a talented African-American singer. Their taboo love mirrors the times as much as the music. The script could stress Felicia’s struggle more: to break a barrier, you sometimes have to break your heart. As they say on the World Poker Tour, Montego Glover’s Felicia goes “all in” on every song. She does such standout renditions of “Someday” and “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails” that the production truncates applause — for fear of adding ten minutes to the running time?

Memphis has many potential showstoppers: J. Bernard Calloway’s Delray and James Monroe Inglehart’s Bobby score with “Underground” and “Big Love.” Melanie Vaughan, as Huey’s mother, sings “Shut Up and Change.” The intro’s so lame you expect the stage to sag. Then Vaughan, Calloway, Allen Fitzpatrick, and Michael Benjamin Washington build it into an anthem.

Joe DiPietro’s book fights a battle between the actual and Broadway expectations. The long first act could use a trim (there’s a song for almost every occasion; problem is, which of David Bryan’s rafter-shaking rockers do you cut?). In some ways the energized first act doesn’t prepare for the tonal changes in the second, which shifts from striving for a dream to costs paid in full. And the conclusion’s an unsteady compromise between what the audience expects — the form calls for wave-the-banner-high uplift — and Phillips’s exit to oblivion.

Aided by a terrific live band and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography, Christopher Ashley’s direction makes the stage pulse like music. David Gallo’s kaleidoscopic sets contribute here as well. They stretch apart and roll together in waves. At one point they literally go underground: the street for the previous scene rises and the basement elevators up.

The book stumbles here and there, but overall the production’s hugely entertaining. The first 20 minutes are so hot, in fact, if the performers kicked it up just a smidge more, they’d create a fire hazard.

Memphis, book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, music and lyrics by David Bryan
La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, UCSD
Directed by Christopher Ashley; cast: Montego Glover, J. Bernard Calloway, Chad Kimball, James Monroe Inglehart, Cass Morgan, Michael Benjamin Washington, Allen Fitzpatrick, Kevin Covert, Steve Gunderson, Brad Bass, John Eric Parker; scenic design, David Gallo; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Ken Travis; choreography, Sergio Trujillo; musical director, Kenny Seymour
Playing through September 28; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

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