There’s arguably no American city that symbolizes race relations and rock and roll more starkly than Memphis. It’s here you’ll find both the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and Graceland, where Elvis Presley lived and died.
“Memphis,” the 2010 Tony winner for best musical, makes its Long Island premiere at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport with a rollicking celebration of a genre once derogated as “race music.”
The musical by Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan weaves a story loosely based on the life of Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, among the first white DJs to play black music, including that of Southern white boys like Elvis. In the 1950s South, promoting black causes was a dangerous occupation.
Huey (rhymes with Dewey) is a high-school dropout who wanders into a literally underground black nightclub on Beale Street when he detects the rhythmic beat through his feet. Regarded warily as a cracker interloper, Huey wins over all but the owner of Delray’s when he bangs out a raucous “The Music of My Soul” on the piano. Among them is Delray’s sister Felicia. With no idea how he’ll pull it off, Huey promises to get Felicia on the air of a mainstream (as opposed to “colored”) radio station.
Predictably, he falls for Felicia while her brother goes ballistic. “She’s My Sister,” C. Mingo Long’s Delray wails after Felicia is beaten by racist thugs when she’s caught kissing Huey. Breanna Bartley as Felicia justifies her brother and lover’s faith in her as a budding R&B star with a blistering “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails,” while Carson Higgins as Huey is indomitable with the clueless courage of his character’s conviction in his “Memphis Lives in Me” anthem. Supporting players Kathryn Markey as Huey’s mom, Arthur Ross as a singing floor sweeper, Jarred Bedgood as Delray’s once-speechless protégé and David McDonald as Huey’s radio boss create a Memphis that feels like home to the crusading DJ.
Igor Goldin, Engeman’s go-to director of musicals, delivers the goods with help from James Olmstead’s rocking band, Antoinette DiPietropolo’s flashy choreography framed by DT Willis’ cavernous set and accessorized by Tristan Raines’ costumes.
While “Memphis” is somewhat derivative of “Hairspray” and “Dreamgirls,” this fine cast makes it feel authentic.