“Memphis” Shakes Up the Starlight Stage

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Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart find musical romance in the Starlight Theatre production of "Memphis."

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What Broadway musical hit about the 1950s comes to mind that involves star-crossed lovers who encounter difficulties because of their racial differences?

If you didn’t consider “Memphis” as a possibility, you’ll need to add that title to your list.

While this snappy comic drama now playing at Starlight Theatre is no “West Side Story,” it’s still an involving and soulful (if superficial) look at the backward era that spawned rock and roll. Kudos to the folks at Starlight for bringing a show to KC that’s still a current hit on the Great White Way.

The book by Joe DiPietro (“Nice Work If You Can Get It”) is a fictional but fairly credible account of a white disc jockey named Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) who can’t get enough of the “race” music that fills the smoky bars in Memphis’ African-American neighborhoods.

First, he falls in love with the unique rhythms and melodies, a clear departure from the white bread Perry Como sounds that dominate the airwaves. Then he falls for a beautiful black woman named Felicia (Felicia Boswell), a songstress who embodies the music.

Everyone but Huey sees red flares at the inception of this interracial romance, but the naive and persistent Huey pursues Felicia…singing and dancing his way into her heart.

In addition to the difficulties posed by their racial differences, Huey faces the old “A Star is Born” male ego bruising as Felicia’s career takes off.

The first act of “Memphis” has pizazz and dramatic nuance, making one wish that the somewhat labored second act had lived up to its promise.

The music by David Bryan (keyboard player for Bon Jovi) may not authentically reflect the sound of the era, but it’s catchy and involving enough to propel the story.

Fenkart is appealing as the goofy but likable Huey, displaying some decent vocal chops along with good comic timing.

Boswell is a firecracker, so the heat you’ll experience at Starlight isn’t all just leftover radiation from the baking afternoon sun.

It’s easy to see why “Memphis” won four Tony Awards including “Best Musical.” The sharp direction by Christopher Ashley (“Xanadu”) and zippy choreography by Sergio Trujillo (“Jersey Boys”) helps to cover some of the flaws in DiPietro’s somewhat clichéd book.

Aside from a few sound glitches on opening night, the technical aspects of the production are solid, which is par for the course for most Starlight presentations.

While you may go away wishing that the creators had made more out of this goldmine of dramatic possibilities, “Memphis” still an entertaining look at an important milestone in American music.

“Memphis” runs through July 15th at Starlight Theatre, 4600 Starlight Road, Kansas City, Mo. Information is available by calling 816-363.STAR (7827) or by visiting www.kcstarlight.com.

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