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Rock 'n' roll lives in 'Memphis'

BEVERLY - When rock 'n' roll meets musical theater the result is usually rock 'n' snooze. The rebelliousness of rock and the uplift of show music often make for pretentious crossovers rather than for harmonious soul mates.

Not so for "Memphis,'' which blends the virtues of both genres into a most agreeable mix in its world premiere at the North Shore Music Theatre. To its credit, the theater averages one new work a year, and this is easily the best since "Abyssinia'' in 1995. It is also, judging from Thursday's opening-night audience, a real crowd pleaser.

By now, of course, early rock 'n' roll doesn't threaten the empire the way that it used to, or the best of rap or alternative music does today. That kind of rock rebellion was mainstreamed when Elvis went Vegas, if not when he went Hollywood. Oldies stations finished the job.

The story concerns the life of white disc jockey Dewey Phillips, who broke down radio barriers by introducing rhythm and blues, then called race music, to radio. Unlike the utterly conformist "rebels'' on today's commercial rock stations, Phillips - here renamed Huey Calhoun - followed his muse into the heart of African-American music.

"Memphis'' is more restrained than he was, but the musical still captures the teen spirit of the 1950s while telling a compelling story. The show unites the talents of Joe DiPietro ("I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change''), who wrote the lyrics and book, with the musical compositions of Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan. The result becomes "I Love You, You're Black, Let's Rock,'' as the heart of the story involves a mixed-race romance between Calhoun and a singer named Felicia Farrell.

Bryan's music is a wonderfully deft blend of gospel, R&B and Broadway melodies, all the more impressive considering his lack of experience with show music. In fact, everything about "Memphis'' is intelligently and professionally executed. DiPietro's writing and Gabriel Barre's savvy music-in-the-round direction never let the story bog down, and every time you think the show is headed toward the maudlin or mundane, they shift the action and throw in new sparkle.

Much of that sparkle resides in the two very likable leads, played by Boston Conservatory graduate Chad Kimball and Montego Glover, who was last seen hereabouts playing the young Alberta Hunter in ``Cookin' at the Cookery'' with the Huntington Theatre Company. Both are fine singers and even better actors. It is amazing how Kimball, who looks like a cross between Patrick Swayze and Jack Paar, can make the same head swivels and hand gestures connote naivete in the first act and braggadocio in the second. And there's not a false note from the strong supporting cast or from the band.

What the show could use are more blue notes in just about every category - the writing, music, and singing. DiPietro's lyrics aren't nearly as witty as in ``I Love You.'' Bryan purposefully leans more to gospel and r&b than electric blues, but the music is almost too upbeat. (Rather that than the opposite, which is the downfall of many a contemporary musical.)

A good deal of the difference between show music and rock or blues singing lies in the vocal range. Show singers tend to cover a wide range, while rock singers are more likely to home in on a narrower but more distinctive style. These singers understandably lean more toward show music, which does the trick, but which can also make ``Memphis'' seem a bit generic at times.

Nevertheless, the rock 'n' roll spirit is alive and well in ``Memphis.'' Most welcome is the putdown of the Wonder Bread antichrist of rock 'n' roll, Dick Clark, who inherits the mantle that Phillips/Calhoun should have worn. Calhoun's fall from grace is handled with particular skill. The downturn in his fortunes tells the story of rock's commodification and limns how Calhoun's virtues became his flaws.

Despite that fall, the final anthemic song leaves the crowd dancing. It's emblematic of all the talent and intelligence that went into this uncommonly good contemporary musical.

Ed Siegel can be reached at


Musical in two acts. Book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro. Music and additional

lyrics, David Bryan. Based on a concept by George W. George.

Choreography, Todd. L. Underwood. Set, Bill Stabile. Costumes, Pamela Scofield. Lights, Phil Monat. Sound, John A. Stone.

At: the North Shore Music Theatre, through Oct. 12. 978-232-7200.

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