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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Memphis — Walnut Street Theatre

memphis03“Memphis” lives for, and on, its production numbers.

While the 2010 Tony-winning musical brims with story, its plot, by Joe DiPietro, alternates racially charged scenes involving prejudice, segregation, and even violence in 1950s Memphis with the saga of a driven eccentric, deejay Huey Calhoun, played with the energy, power, and depth we expect from Walnut Street regular Christopher Sutton.

DiPietro keeps moving “Memphis” forward, but its scenes become a tad cookie-cutter and its characters predictable. Even dramatic high points appear to be chosen from a list of plot ideas specifically designed to raise the temperature in a room. The scenes are realistic, but they pretend to more depth than they provide. The book keeps “Memphis” at a level of pleasingly mild entertainment that never aspires to or achieves any real importance. Potentially heady material is handled in too much of a middle-of-the-road manner. Even blasts of the n-word by a white radio station owner, a brutal beating incurred by the lead characters, and various rivalries and betrayals cannot lift DiPietro’s book from surface level.

Don’t let that daunt you. “Memphis,” especially as directed by Richard Stafford and performed by Sutton, Kimber Sprawl, and Nicholas Parker for the Walnut, gets past the book’s formulaic simplicity — Let me put it this way, the struggle to integrate popular music is more poignant in “Hairspray” than in “Memphis” — by taking advantage of the show business elements DiPietro neatly leaves room for composer-lyricist David Bryan to fill. Music is the central subject of “Memphis,” and Stafford and company pull out all stops in this department.

No matter how tritely or clichéd lead character Felicia Farrell’s rise from Beale Street obscurity to the top of national R&B charts is, she has to have a song and a voice that will earn her attention, air play, and interest from Northern broadcasting execs. While the lyrics, probably Bryan’s, possibly DiPietro’s, of the song that propels Felicia to stardom, “Someday” are dreadfully anti-romantic to the point of being laughable, they’re also inconsequential. What matters is how Kimber Sprawl makes every occasion when Felicia sings into one that foreshadows the fame that awaits her and that she deserves. Fame that derives from many sources beyond Felicia’s, or Sprawl’s, magnificent vocal instrument, and owes credit to Sutton’s irrepressible Calhoun — Hockadoo!!! — and Felicia’s brother Delray, played with impressive realism by Philip Michael Baskerville.

“Memphis” is a story of one artist’s ascendance contrasted with one prophet’s decline. What happens is bittersweet, and Christopher Sutton squeezes out all he can to make Calhoun empathetic when he’s left behind after Felicia’s triumph, but, again, DiPietro’s book is too “is what it is” to excite emotion no matter how much you like a character or admire the varying levels on which he is played.

In the long run, the story provides a decent enough background device to let the music shine through and give Stafford’s Walnut audience a show. Sutton never lets down. Sprawl is luminescent. Baskerville maintains an edge even when his character is being conciliatory. Nicholas Parker is a comic delight and musical treat as Bobby. Mary Martello eventually chews the scenery she’s been blending into as Calhoun’s mother. Ron Wisniski goes beyond stereotype as a broadcast station owner. Fran Prisco gives personality and heft to two parts that could fade into serviceable oblivion. So, the Walnut’s “Memphis” takes off because the show’s intrinsic entertainment value as a variety show and study of Calhoun, and its ability to conquer the done-so-often-before via Sprawl, Parker, and Sutton’s performances, puts the mundane at bay and lets song and dance take over. Gloriously!

Huey Calhoun is an anomaly in his hometown. Memphis has always been famous for Beale Street jazz, but in the 1950s, at least one club, Delray Farrell’s, is veering into the genre that is going to dominate the next 60 years of music, rock and roll. Specifically, he is featuring rhythm and blues in the form of songs he writes and his sister, Felicia, performs with brio. The music Delray prefers reminds me of the rarely heard excellent sides the great Rollye James played on Friday nights when she had an overnight show on WPHT (1210 AM) in Philadelphia. (Rollye must be streaming or on shortwave somewhere. She is an radio engineering genius in addition to being a unique radio personality, and as I write about her, I miss her and vow to go on hunt to locate her.) This is not the music of Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, or even Aretha Franklin that Felicia represents. It goes viscerally deeper than they do and stirs emotions Patti LaBelle can’t muster..

Beale Street, in the 50s, and for the most part today, is primarily black. Few whites ventured there, particularly in the days of de facto segregation that parallel civil rights struggles and Dwight Eisenhower summoning the National Guard to accompany children into Little Rock’s Central High School.

DiPietro and Bryan only touch on the time at hand. Keeping the beat going and the music playing is their greater concern, and thank goodness, they address it relentlessly.

Huey Calhoun is not one who is going to conform to what others think and say. He is more of an individualist than a rebel, the kind of guy that has been dancing to his own drummer for so long, folks have stopped noticing.

Huey knows what he likes, and it’s the kind of raw, down and dirty rhythm and blues Delray presents as his club.

Like a scene from a Western is which an hombre silences a saloon by coming as a stranger through the swinging doors, Huey stuns Delray and company when he enters his establishment, attracted by hearing Felicia and others from the street.

Huey is a bit of a crusader. He wants to get Felicia’s music on Memphis radio. Not just on the bands at the far end of the dial where maybe people in a five-mile radius of a transmitter can hear it, but on a station in “the center of the dial” that bleed into Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia.

In Memphis, most of those stations were in “Memphis” terms lily white. They played the rock and roll of crooners like Perry Como and Pat Boone. That was risqué enough, considering it was a departure from country or the Bings and Frankies and Dennises from whom audiences usually heard pop tunes. It would take a firestorm, if not a miracle for “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” to be replaced by the suggestive and unrefined “Scratch My Itch.”

Huey’s goal was to make that happen. “Memphis” shows him getting his chance is the most fanciful of ways, but contrived though it is, DiPietro based his book on Calhoun’s life story, so it might occur in “Memphis” just as it did in life.

Christopher Sutton is a hurricane as Calhoun.

The great thing about Sutton is he is winning enough as an actor to legitimately make the annoying lovable and palatable.

I say “legitimately” because Sutton spares the Walnut audience none of Huey’s obnoxiousness or nerve. He presents it in a way that makes Calhoun’s campaign into a mission. Huey is the good guy who barely sees prejudice, let alone practices it. He is the one who cannot figure out why racial divides exist and are upheld with such venomous, toxic stubbornness, by Delray as much as by his mother and employers.

NealBoxHuey doesn’t wear blinders, but he is willing, in his crazy outfits with his outlandish deejay patter, to go into the breach and fight for what he thinks isn’t so much right as it is fun, rousingly entertaining music fans everywhere, whether they have a Jerry Blavat or Rollye James in their midst or not, will enjoy. One of “Memphis’s” expected but gratifying scenes is seeing the white Memphis teens dancing pelvically to Felicia’s music and going full tilt into struts and skittering that derive from black Gospel. “Memphis” might be superficial, but it can get your feet and hips going and coax you to break into a doo-wop wail.

Huey’s strategies to get more R&B played mainstream — successful because advertisers respond to the better ratings Calhoun’s station gets — are played against Delray working within his own circles to make his sister a star. The stories, of course, clash. Tension, light and predictable though it may be, comes from Huey and Delray squaring off over what’s most beneficial for Felicia. You also see the conflict between Huey and his traditional Southern mother and the tumult caused when Delray, Mrs. Calhoun, and others in black and white Memphis notice Huey and Felicia are romantically inclined and may have gone beyond the kisses that are witnessed to create one more plot crisis, quickly and blandly handled as is par for “Memphis.”

As I’ve noted, the lyrics for many of “Memphis’s” tunes can border on the unbelievably bad. “Someday,” the song that rockets Felicia to attention in Memphis and nationally, features a woman warning a man with whom she finds mutual contentment she is going eventually to rip him apart. Just the sentiment that would make a man want to stick around for the heave-ho. Absurdly bad, but effective in tune, rhythm, and ability to excite an audience.

So execrable doesn’t make a difference. Ignore its words and sentiment, and you’ll be as convinced as Huey and recoding execs are, that “Someday” is a ticket to the top.

More successful are numbers that give a character, and therefore a performer, the chance to shine. Nicholas Parker certainly maximizes that chance when, as the overweight, overlooked Bobby — a factotum who sweeps floors one minute and is second banana on a weekday TV dance program the next — takes the floor and shows his smooth and graceful moves in “Big Love.” Mary Martello, bookending a gambit she did in this year’s Walnut opener, “Nine to Five,” turns from mousy, disapproving, insulting, destructive Mom to production number powerhouse as she once more sheds forty years from her age and launches into an all-out sexy number in which others join her.

Ensemble work is superbly lively on the Walnut stage. So many numbers depend of the cast blending together to build momentum and express the energy both Huey and the R&B music he espouses exude. Time and time again, the Walnut stage turns into a whirlwind of song and dance that gets your pulse going in the right, most entertaining way.

Then there’s Christopher Sutton.

The great thing about Sutton is he’s beyond cliché. He wouldn’t be able to be less than special if her tried.

The Walnut has given him many chances to proves that. Whether in two separate productions of “The Buddy Holly Story,” “Elf,” or “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” (also by DiPietro), Sutton goes past anything in the book to present a sincere, complete, human being.

The man projects authenticity even when he is called upon to be all showman. You never doubt the commitment of Huey Calhoun. Huey can behave the most idiotically or bombastically, and you go along with him, root for his success, and forgive any trespass. Sutton makes the outsized and incredible proportionate and believable. He can play larger than life while being rooted in life. In “Elf” and “You’re Perfect,” he goes in the opposite direction and finds the personal and individual in what seems to be ordinary.

His Huey grabs you from the moment he arrives on stage. Huey can be an unbearably insufferable as a man can be, and you understand the scope of what makes him tick. Sutton economically provides all you need to know, for instance that Huey has his heart in the right place, both as someone who wants to share music he loves and as someone who is advancing civil rights in the most effective way, by exposing others who are carefully taught to be prejudiced to a brand of music associated with a culturally verboten group and making the twain meet. That’s always better than saying, “Be good. Be nice. You must.”

Sutton handles the large role by making it intimate. You feel as if you know Huey and are hurt when anything thwarts his progress or when anyone denies his role, or his just deserts, in Felicia’s elevation.

Big numbers such as “Hello, My Name is Huey,” “Tear Down the House,” and “Memphis Lives in Me” have their full power and are done in a way that draws you into Huey and helps you understand him and care about him more.

In a show that can suffer from the superficial or the shallow, Sutton always finds the depth and the heart and conveys it. From “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” or the current “Something Rotten!” to romantic leads such as George Novak in “She Loves Me” or Paul in “Carnival,” I could build seasons around Sutton’s talent, and am I glad Bernard Havard, Mark Sylvester, and the people at the Walnut do!

In “Memphis” he is joined by a cast that catches and enhances Sutton’s ebullience. It is not difficult to believe Kimber Sprawl’s pop music success because she radiates sparks and holds you in the palm of her hand when she sings.

There’s no halfway to Sprawl. When she is on, you see Felicia’s star power. She and Sutton also make their romantic scenes work. In general, you have to take in on faith that a sharp, with it woman like Felicia could find the awkward Huey more than a supporter or close friend. Sutton and Sprawl make the romance happen. You see caution and mores fall to affection. It’s quite a tribute to the actors, one of which they should be proud.

Ron Wisniski seems realistically harried and convincingly self-serving as the station owner who gives Huey some leeway. Philip Michael Baskerville maintains unbending gravitas as Delray. Nicholas Parker is aces as Bobby, a guy who is not too big or too small for any job and one you want on your side. Parker also has some of the “Memphis” company’s best and most surprising dance moves.

Kristyn Pope, April Holloway, and Holly Googe add style and substance to numbers as Felicia’s backup troupe.

Gail Baldonif finds the right horrible clothes for Sutton’s Huey and does a fine job in turning Mary Martello’s dowdy waitress of a Mom to a ’50s middle class fashion plate. Peter Barbieri’s set neatly serves all locations. Douglas Lutz’s band sounded great wailing out David Bryan’s R&B tunes and in matching Sutton’s vitality as Huey.

“Memphis” runs through Sunday, July 12 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. No show is schedule for 2 p.m. Saturday, May 30, 7 p.m. Sunday, June 14, or 2 p.m. Thursday, June 18. Tickets range from $95 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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