'Memphis' knows how to have a good time

THEATER REVIEW: "Memphis" at the Cadillac Palace Theatre ★★★½

 The touring production of "Memphis" is at the Cadillac Palace in downtown Chicago.

The touring production of "Memphis" is at the Cadillac Palace in downtown Chicago. (HANDOUT / November 14, 2011)

Scurrying toward the exit of the Cadillac Palace Theatre on Tuesday night, I was atypically besieged by the delighted.

"I hope," said one striking, determined woman, affecting a tone between deep worry and a mild threat, "that you liked this show as much as the rest of us."

A few minutes later in the parking garage, the unsolicited suggestion from a thrilled-to-bits patron was "four stars." He went on to say he was very surprised.

Well, as Huey Calhoun might say, Hockadoo! That's "Memphis" for you.

By no means a full-on critical favorite on Broadway (although I mostly enjoyed myself), "Memphis" certainly was not pegged in advance for glory by Broadway insiders. But Joe DiPietro ("I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change") — who wrote the book about a quirky white DJ who starts playing "race" music in Memphis in the 1950s and ends up changing his town and the lives of the denizens of Beale Street — was well used to being underestimated in the appeal of his shrewdly effective, accessible and confirmatory work for a cash-paying, big-night-out audience. And although eyebrows were raised at a score composed by a founding member of Bon Jovi, keyboardist David Bryan nonetheless proved that original scores invariably trump the jukebox and that he knew his way around a catchy, accessible tune. How do you think Bon Jovi survived?

"Memphis" managed to grab the 2010 Tony Award for best musical basically by hanging tough, quietly exceeding limited expectations and establishing itself as a good-time, rockin', bluesy favorite with the mainstream audience. It was as simple as that, and it remains as simple as that.

This good-time quotient explains why the show is still playing on Broadway and across the country. This first national tour, out for only a few weeks, arrived here Tuesday. And it's one hot company.

In fact, I'd say the tour of "Memphis" lands far more satisfyingly than when I saw this show around its Broadway opening. That's partly due to the relief one always feels these days at seeing a Broadway tour done right and worthy of a high-stakes Thanksgiving berth in the Loop — Equity cast, comparable production values to Broadway, nothing tired or significantly cut-down — in an era when cheaper tours are proliferating. This one is the full monty, and better yet, these actors are either fresh or re-energized at landing in Sweet Home Chicago, or both.

Many of them were in the Broadway company (although not originating the leads), and as sometimes happens when various commercial and political Broadway equations have finally taken a back seat to young talent, they've clearly got something to prove. And prove it they do, especially when executing Sergio Trujillo's zesty choreography (this show offers, I've long thought, Trujillo at his best). It's also a formidably slick staging by Christopher Ashley, who never lets anything stand still long enough for you to start getting ahead of the simple story or wondering about, oh, those mildly derivative elements from "Hairspray" and other musicals about race and the music industry. Acknowledging but also whipping past the painful moments of racial strife, Ashley zips the action around Memphis like a raging current on the Mississippi River.

The casting of the tour also goes a good way toward solving one element of this show that nagged at me in New York: the perennial issue that here you have a white guy solving all the black folks' problems. The superb Bryan Fenkart, who now plays Huey, offers a more self-effacing and eccentric performance than was the case with Chad Kimball, a more enigmatic personality. Similarly, Felicia Boswell, who now plays Felicia, the black blues singer and love interest for Huey, invests this character with more force and youthful determination. The power dynamic of the leads has shifted, to the betterment of the show: It now feels as if Felicia could save the needy and provincial Huey more easily than Huey can build up Felicia's singing career.

With that leveling-out, you can relax more easily into the all-inclusive story of how music saved America — or, at least, livened things up mightily in Memphis, not to mention this November in Chicago.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Dec. 4

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

Tickets: $37-$95 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com

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