Calhoun (Chad Kimball) -- who is based in part on real-life 1950s radio personality Dewey Phillips -- is an uneducated yet ambitious man who tricks his way onto a Memphis radio station and slowly introduces the city's white population to "race music," eventually finding fame, fortune, and a few enemies in the process. He also finds love with young black singer Felicia Farrell (Montego Glover), who is far more aware than Huey how dangerous their affair can be in racist Tennessee.
Joe DiPietro's patchwork book not only too often recalls better musicals, specifically Hairspray and Dreamgirls, but never seems entirely clear what kind of story it wants to tell. While Hairspray also tackled integration, nothing remotely tragic was likely to happen to its characters, so we could all sit back and enjoy the show's lightness. But the stakes are far higher here -- especially once we see Huey and Felicia being savagely beaten at the end of Act I -- which makes the show's too-many-forays into standard musical folderol somewhat uncomfortable considering the seriousness of the subject matter. Moreover, when Huey finally engineers his own downfall -- personally and professionally -- by kissing Felicia while on live television, one isn't entirely sure what his motivation is or if he even understands the consequences of his actions. Is he tragic, tragically naive, or tragically stupid? The answer makes a difference.
Faring better than the book is Memphis' score, by DiPietro and Bon Jovi's David Bryan (who also teamed up for The Toxic Avenger), which is consistently melodic and often catchy. Its most memorable numbers are the power ballads "Love Will Stand When All Else Falls" and "Memphis Lives In Me" -- both of which will likely be sung on American Idol in the not-too-distant future -- and much of the score is propelled by a good beat. But ultimately there's far too much music here; some songs do little more than replace dialogue ("She's My Sister"), while others seem little more than excuses to give some of the show's minor characters a moment in the spotlight ("Change Don't Come Easy," "Big Love") whether they need one or not.
Ashley's smooth if occasionally frenetic direction almost allows you to overlook the show's rougher spots, and he's been well-served in his mission by David Gallo's excellent set and projection design, Paul Tazewell's colorful costumes, Howell Binkley's effective lighting, Sergio Trujillo's energetic choreography -- and, above all, the top-notch and extremely hard-working cast, which has been instructed to sell every single second of the 2 1/2-hour show.
No one works harder than Kimball, who affects an odd Southern drawl and stooped posture for Huey. He gives the part everything he's got, never once shying away from Calhoun's ignorance, selfishness, or ambition -- yet making a possibly unappealing character someone you genuinely root for. Glover, who possesses a dynamic singing voice, serves up the right mixture of sweetness and spice as Felicia in what can only be called a star-making performance. Meanwhile, James Monroe Iglehart as janitor-turned-singer Bobby makes the strongest impression among the supporting players, while such pros as Cass Morgan (as Huey's "good Christian" mama), Michael McGrath (as the pragmatic radio station owner), and Derrick Baskin (as Felicia's once-mute pal, Gator) do what they can to make their rather underwritten roles stand out.