What a difference half a century makes.
Nearly 50 years ago, Richard Rodgers’ “No Strings” premiered in Detroit. The plot, set in Paris, centered around an inter-racial romance and starred --for you Broadway trivia buffs-- Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley.
2010 Tony award winning musical “Memphis” also features an inter-racial romance set in the same time period –Memphis and the back drop of the birth of rock ‘n roll standing in for the City of Lights. . And while an innocent kiss shared on stage by white and black actors no longer elicits the reaction it did back when “Not Strings” first premiered (my mother tells me that fellow audience members gasped, cursed and ran from the theater mid-performance), “Memphis” proves even half a decade later that race still matters. We may have an African American president, but there still is a racial divide.
“Memphis” is loosely based on the life of DJ Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play music from African American artists and thus is credited for dragging radio stations kicking and screaming into the(somewhat) integrated world we all enjoy today.
At the start, Huey Calhoun (the appropriately goofy Bryan Fenkart) is an illiterate white Southerner drifting aimlessly from job to job when he happens to hear the music coming from an underground juke joint run by Delray (the richly-deep voiced Quentin Earl Darrington).
Delray’s club is a showcase for the voice talents of Felicia (the soulful and sultry Felicia Boswell). Recognizing talent when he sees it, Huey makes it his mission to see that Felicia’s voice be heard. No easy task in a pre-Civil Rights era Memphis. To complicate matters, the pair fall in love. You know it probably won't end well. He views Memphis as his beloved home and to her it is an oppressive prison.
There are some fine performances from the supporting characters. Most noteably, Julie Johnson brings down the house when she belts out “Change Don’t Come Easy” and Will Mann displays both fancy footwork and singing in “Big Love” (the suggestible lyrics help, too). Sergio Trujillo’s period choreography also sizzles.
There was one slight problem with the current cast, though. While the original Broadway Huey Chad Kimball was a bit too good looking )I had a hard time believing he was a loveable loser), the passion Kimball shared on stage with his co-star Montego Glover was palpable.
Both Fenkart and Boswell are engaging in their individual roles, but have zero chemistry as an on-stage couple. Sure, you believe Fenkart’s sad sack Huey could fall for Boswell’s gutsy and determined Felicia, but you find yourself grasping for ulterior motives on the part of Felicia.
The show still works with this new dynamic, but it takes away from the play’s larger messages about race and cultural identity. The vocal theatrics and dancing, however, still make the show work the ticket price, though.
"Memphis" runs through Dec. 4 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph. Tickets, $37-$95. Call (800) 775-2000; www.broadwayinchicago.com.