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Theater review: 'Memphis' the soul of rock and roll

In this theater publicity image released by The

In this theater publicity image released by The Hartman Group, J.Bernard Calloway, left, and Montego Glover are shown in a scene from the musical "Memphis," now playing at Broadway's Shubert Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/The Hartman Group, Joan Marcus) Photo Credit: AP Photo/Joan Marcus

Broadway has been eerily quiet about new musicals this season. That just changed - in a very big way - with "Memphis," arguably the best black musical written by white guys since "Dreamgirls."

The extraordinary show, which crept into town with little fanfare and nonstop talent, tells the high-stakes story of Huey Calhoun, an irrepressible poor-white DJ hipster (Chad Kimball) who popularizes "race music" in '50s Tennessee in the years before Elvis made it safe for America's children.

Imagine if "Jersey Boys" had new music to go with its cultural history, or if "Hairspray" were not a happy cartoon about race relations. "Memphis" has a passionate, exuberantly believable book by Joe DiPietro (best known, oddly enough, for the light crowd pleaser "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change"). The remarkably rich and raucous character-driven songs, by Bon Jovi cofounder David Bryan, lovingly capture the insinuating, earthy authenticity of rhythm and blues, gospel and early rock and roll without sounding derivative.

The moody and inventive production has been put together with down-and-dirty elegance by director Christopher Ashley, choreographer Sergio Trujillo, set designer David Gallo and costume designer Paul Tazewell, who let the musical and dramatic and pop-up scenic discoveries peel off one another at a pace breathless and disciplined, original and authentic. When a singer lets loose - and, eventually, they all do - the vocal pyrotechnics come from deep within the storytelling.

We first meet Huey in 1951, when he bursts into an all-black club in the basement of what his song calls "the dark side of town." Nobody - not the gorgeous dancers with the taffy-pulling limbs nor the wary owner (the formidable J. Bernard Calloway) - wants him there stealing what he declares as "the music of my soul." Huey falls for the owner's sister (Montego Glover, a revelation of intelligent sensuality), but an interracial couple is big trouble.

Kimball - with his porkpie hat, bitter-lemon voice and motor-mouth patter - makes us believe that Huey is inventing himself right along with shock-jock radio, early TV and seismic racial change. After a shocking weekend when a justice of the peace refused to marry an interracial couple in Louisiana, "Memphis" is not just Broadway's news."

"Memphis"Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., 212-239-6200, memphisthemusical.com. Cost: $41.50-$126.50. Bottom line: A smash.

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