The first half of Memphis is impressive. The giant set is capable of more scene changes (a subterranean bar, a recording studio, a department store, a city street) than a box full of LEGOs, the subject matter is complex (race relations and interracial romance in 1950s Memphis), and the giant cast digs enthusiastically into the score. Montego Glover as Felicia, the nightclub singer with dreams of national fame, has the looks, the broad emotive range, and the exceptional singing voice of a great leading lady. And Chad Kimball plays Huey Calhoun, the white DJ who tries to bring black music to the hateful crackers of Memphis, as a nasal-voiced music nerd. The slouchy, nebbishy Calhoun romances the amazonian Felicia—a genuinely surprising odd couple.
Memphis is still being tooled for a potential Broadway run, and some of the flaws are glaring. Calhoun's mother (Cass Morgan) sings a listless second-act song that momentarily kills the show dead. One character hasn't spoken since he watched his daddy lynched as a young boy—a cliché older than the city of Memphis itself. And two of the songs sound way too white for a show about R&B music. (Composer David Bryan used to play keyboard for Bon Jovi.) The opening number, "Underground," is laced with an anachronistic Rent-era electric guitar, and the last song, "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll," hinges on a John Cougar Mellencamp–style "na na na" chorus and a pro-rock-and-roll message antithetical to the whole white-folk-stole-black-music story of the play.
Racism and the theft of black music to create marketable rock 'n' roll doesn't scream "happy ending." The high quotient of really fun numbers—a double-Dutch jump-rope routine and James Monroe Iglehart's show-stealing testimonial about the pleasures of loving a big man—makes it easy to understand why the producers would not want Memphis to end on a down note. But the forced happy ending glosses over the story of the play and is disrespectful to the subject matter.