Montego Glover and Chad Kimball
in Memphis
(© Kevin Berne)
Montego Glover and Chad Kimball
in Memphis
(© Kevin Berne)
When was rock 'n' roll born? Many people say it was with the 1954 release of Elvis Presley's version of "That's All Right," while others contend Elvis and other white performers just stole the music from black singers who had been performing it in their own juke joints for many years. The latter is the contention of the exuberantly performed new musical Memphis, now at the La Jolla Playhouse.

The show, which features a book by Joe DiPietro and a score by Di Pietro and David Bryan, focuses on shiftless, luckless Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), who stumbles into a black Beale Street club in the early 1950s and discovers "The Music of My Soul" -- and the love of his life. Soon, Huey, a fictionalized version of actual Memphis DJ and celebrity Dewey Phillips, finagles his way onto the airwaves, and his unorthodox approach to his job and his taste in music give him the number one radio show in town. He's a rebel with a cause -- to get his secret love for black singer Felicia (Montego Glover) out in the open while making her a star. Since rebels never have a smooth path, it's no surprise that Huey and Felicia's union is threatened by the segregated times they live in as well as his cracker mother (Cass Morgan) and her overprotective brother Delray (J. Bernard Calloway).

The first act is a series of ups and downs as it charts Huey's rise to the top despite the odds, and ends on a tragic note as he and Felicia are viciously attacked by racists. Even though the second act begins on a high note with the debut of Huey's soon-to-be top-rated TV show, it quickly becomes a de rigueur look at a show biz couple in trouble as one star ascends while another declines. Yet DiPietro keeps one's interest in spite of the clichés, because he has created full-bodied characters. Moreover, the score's uptempo tunes, ballads, and comedy numbers are all well crafted, while only a few scattered numbers that are more recitative than song might work better as straight dialogue.

Director Christopher Ashley keeps the action and momentum going throughout; indeed, there is barely a chance to catch your breath between show-stopping musical numbers and gripping dramatic scenes. Sergio Trujillo's energetic and frenetic choreography have the joint jumping from the opening moments. Paul Tazewell's costume design is period perfect; David Gallo's scenic design and Shawn Sagady's projections effortlessly take the action to many places; and Howell Binkley's lighting design is stellar as usual.

The real star of the evening is Glover, who possesses a dynamite voice that rattles the rafters. She's a bit Diana Ross, a bit Tina Turner, and a bit Aretha. Glover impresses from her first notes in the opening number "Underground," gets all gospel with "Make Me Stronger," and belts with "Love Will Stand When All Else Falls." Her dramatic passion in "Colored Woman" energizes the very air of the theater, providing goose bumps. Kimball is quirky yet impassioned as Huey, but his overly mannered physical tics and facial smirks are sometimes just annoying. However, his voice is on fine display throughout the show, and his singing is especially thrilling in "Memphis Lives in Me."

The supporting cast is also exemplary. Calloway lets loose in "I Don't Make the Rules," Morgan finally gets to strut her stuff in "Shut Up and Change," and James Monroe Inglehart gets down and raunchy in "Big Love." Under Kenny Seymour's musical direction, the live on-stage band really rocks the joint, aided by the amazing sound design of Ken Travis.

Memphis will probably be unfairly compared to Jersey Boys, which began its journey at La Jolla. But hopefully, this powerful theatrical experience will be judged on its own merits and find a life of its own.