The musical “Memphis” (playing Clowes Hall through April 6 as part of the Broadway in Indianapolis series) is a lot like its lead character. It’s awkward yet oddly compelling. It’s overflowing with both soul and cheese. And it tends to state the obvious, repeatedly.
It’s the 1950s and white Huey is a drop-out music lover in the title town who becomes fascinated with African-American singer Felicia. Can he make her a star? Will he get a job? Will they fall in love? What will it mean to the music when it moves from the fringes of the radio dial to the center (where it will reach white audiences)?
One of the big pleasures, especially in the show’s first act, is that we don’t know the answers to any of these questions. That’s because “Memphis” is the rare musical these days that is not based on a movie or book. And it actually has an original score as well. And if you can ignore the expositional, obvious lyrics, there are musical pleasures to be had throughout and Jasmin Richardson is in particularly good voice as Felicia (of her accent, though, the less said the better).
Another pleasure is that Huey (here played by Joey Elrose with less twitchiness than his Broadway counterpart) isn’t very bright. And he continues to not be very bright through the end of the show. It seems odd to say, but his cluelessness actually makes the story more interesting. Here’s hoping for a future production in which Felicia is played just as dumb. Like “Carousel” and “Oklahoma!, “Memphis” would benefit from having both leads less poised. Their romance would certainly be easier to believe.
The supporting cast here is inconsistent, ranging from the engaging, in-the-moment Jerrial T. Young as a jovial janitor pushed into the spotlight to a dance ensemble that included a few dead-faced ensemble members phoning it in. Life on the road is hard, folks, but your job is to not show it.
I won’t do any spoiling, but I will say that I admire the show more for some of the clichés it avoids in the rushed second act more than for what it does to avoid them. For maximum enjoyment, it’s helpful to put aside the fact that “Memphis” is a Tony-winning Best Musical (it was a slow year) and just appreciate that it’s certainly a step up from the likes of “Ghost” and “Flashdance.”
I left the theater humming “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
Unfortunately, that song is from “Hairspray.”