Jim Rutter, For The Inquirer
Friday, May 22, 2015, 3:01 AM
'Inspired by actual events" has become one of the more misleading phrases used to push entertainment. In Memphis, now in a musically sensational staging at the Walnut Street Theatre, the claim to a factual basis creates huge dichotomies within the production, and makes a mess of the entire evening.
In the 1950s, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips broke radio's color barrier by becoming one of the first white DJs to play "race music," then a euphemism for rock-and-roll and blues sung by African Americans.
In Joe DiPietro's script for Memphis, protagonist Huey Calhoun (Christopher Sutton) breaks the same barrier, but similarities end there. Instead of partying hard and dying of methamphetamine abuse, as Phillips did, Huey leads an idealistic crusade, prompted by his love of a black singer, Felicia Farrell (Kimber Sprawl), and his adoration for the "music of his soul."
Under Richard Stafford's direction, the Walnut's production creates a documentary feel out of a pretend story, projecting black and white photo montages of Huey being arrested, Huey leading a protest march, and white and black dancers mingling at one of Huey's concerts.
If Memphis were a true bio-show, fine, but otherwise, why mislead? This cast features many fine performances (particularly Mary Martello as Huey's mother, who astounds in one rousing number). Let Peter Barbieri's set pieces and Gail Baldoni's dazzling costumes (those gold jackets) evoke the era, so DiPietro's presumably secondary story line of Huey and Felicia's romance can take the focus it deserves.
This theme, of love frustrated by social hostilities touches on easily recognizable universals, but it gets muddled by the clash between Felicia's artistic ambition and Huey's push for social progress. In the context of the racial tensions of the 1950s, this would be (and is) a confusing story. If we take it as fiction, we're less likely to judge either of them.
For her part, Sprawl makes no similar mess of her performance. This article is from wwwphilly.comReminiscent of a young Whitney Houston, she appears outwardly delicate, yet conceals a gorgeous voice that fills the Walnut with its power. Throughout, she and Nichalas Parker (as Bobby) rock the house to the toe-tapping, simple, but potent music of David Bryan.
But where Huey starts off the evening adorable and disarming, innocent and earnest in his love and his ideals, Stafford amplifies the campy humor, and Huey ends like a jester without a court.
And the story wraps up blandly, not with triumph or defeat, but with a lament - not for mistakes made or promises broken (though they are) but for not having done more, or fought harder.
But it's hard to lament something that never even happened.
Through July 12 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $20-$95. Information: 215-574-3550, www.walnutstreettheatre.org.