For six decades, the popularity of music from the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll era has outlasted any other genre of music. Seniors built life-long dreams on iconic tunes of those times and teens continue to embrace rock ‘n’ roll. The energetic and dramatic musical “Memphis: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” running in the Mandell Weiss Theatre through Sept. 28, has toes tapping, hands clapping and hearts a thumpin’.
The story is loosely based on the rebellious 1950s Memphis DJ, Dewey Philips. In “Memphis,” the story unfolds through the life of Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball) a renegade white man who finds his soul come alive when he stumbles into a black nightclub on the wrong side of town. In Delray’s (J. Bernard Calloway) jive joint, the music is loud and the dance floor is rarely empty.
Delray wants the intruder to leave, but Huey jumps on the piano and proves his face might be white, but his soul permeates black rhythm and blues. Huey infuriates Delray even further when he sets his eye on Delray’s sister and sizzling lead singer, Felicia (Montego Glover).
Kimball and Glover, who are both reprising their roles in “Memphis,” offer electric performances. Huey is his own person in physical appearance, eccentric mannerisms and determination. He defies WHDZ radio station owner Mr. Simmons (Allen Fitzpatrick) and plays black music over the airwaves of a white listening audience. He ignores his mother’s (Cass Morgan) plea to dress right and get a real job. More blazingly, Huey falls in love and pursues Felicia at a time when blacks and whites couldn’t sit together on a bus much less date. Calhoun, who has appeared in such shows as “Lennon,” and “Into The Woods,” nails these scenarios with mesmerizing excitement.
Glover is a tour-de-force every moment she’s on stage. A Broadway star in such shows as “Dreamgirls Concert” and “The Color Purple,” Glover sings with the fervor of a Tina Turner. She maneuvers through the gamut of her character’s dilemmas superbly, whether trying to get noticed by white record producers or battling her brother over her love of a white man.
Although he’s helmed many productions including Broadway’s Tony Award-winning “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Memphis” is the first production directed by Christopher Ashley since becoming the Playhouse’s artistic director last year. Considering the extra challenge of the huge cast and crew, he drives the production with a solid hand.
Book and lyrics of the musical are by Joe DiPietro (“All Shook Up”), and music and additional lyrics are by Bon Jovi keyboardist and founding member, David Bryan. DiPietro and Bryan collaborated together to make sure the music was also a star of this show.
“I was very excited when I got the call from David that he wanted to write the music because this is about an important time in our nation’s history,” DiPietro said. “He nailed every song.”
The entire cast of “Memphis” puts everything they have into making choreographer Sergio Trujillo’s (“Jersey Boys”) vibrant dance routines trailblazing. David Gallo’s Rubik’s Cube-like set design makes this an easy feat. The large block moves or opens small sections to reveal the WHDZ radio station, Delray’s bar or other key scenes in the play.
Due to some suggestive material the show is recommended for teens and adults. In addition to a thoroughly enjoyable gospel, R&B and early rock musical score well performed, those who attend “Memphis” can expect to find a fluid, imaginative and captivating story as well.
‘Memphis’- Through Sept. 28
- Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse
- 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla
- (858) 550-1010,