NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 7, 2012

'Memphis' comes home

Musical with North Shore roots returns to region

By Larry Claflin
Correspondent

---- — “Memphis” finds its way back to the region this month with a run at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. During its travels to the Big Apple, this musical production enjoyed a three-year run on Broadway and garnered the 2010 Tony for best musical.

That’s not too shabby for the upstart first staged at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly in 2003.

“It’s all due to Jon Kimbell,” said Joe DiPietro, who wrote “Memphis” with collaborator David Bryan.

Kimbell, who is NSMT’s longtime artistic director, attended a workshop production of “Memphis” in California in 2002, but saw just the first act, DiPietro said.

That was enough for Kimbell, DiPietro said, who approached the creative team during a break.

“He said, ‘I want to put this on the main stage at (NSMT) next year. I have to catch a plane but my people will call your agent tomorrow,’” DiPietro continued. “I was sort of stunned. Things just don’t happen that simply in this business.”

And yet, that’s what happened.

“Memphis” is set in the segregated South of the 1950s, during the infancy of rock ‘n’ roll. It tells the story of Huey Calhoun, a white disc jockey who falls in love with a young black singer, Felicia Farrell. The two garner fame in racially charged Tennessee.

The story is loosely based on Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music in 1950s Memphis.

DiPietro wrote the musical’s book and script. Bryan, the Bon Jovi keyboard player, wrote the music. They penned the lyrics together.

Bill Hanney, who reopened North Shore Music Theatre in 2010, is pleased with the success of “Memphis.”

“I’m just so happy,” Hanney said. “It’s such a terrific show. … I’ve seen it four times and I’ll also attend opening night in Boston.”

Hanney said his patrons have a fondness for “Memphis,” too.

“When I mention it’s coming to Boston during my curtain speech, there’s just a big round of applause,” he said.

For one cast member, Brian Fenkart, playing Huey Calhoun is a “dream role,” especially for a kid from New Jersey.

“(Huey’s) something totally different from me, the way he moves and talks … He’s from a different era,” said Fenkart, who also is a singer-songwriter with a new CD, “Simple & Grey.”

Huey’s character resonates with Fenkart.

“His love of music is something that I’ve had since I was small,” Fenkart said. “He’s not trying to start a revolution; he’s not trying to break any barriers at the beginning. He just wanted to spread good music.”

“Memphis” faltered early on, when an issue concerning the story’s rights delayed it for three or four years, according to DiPietro. However , the extra time worked to the musical’s advantage, he said.

“The legend of the show was growing as we weren’t able to get it back up, so by the time we had the rights people were talking about it,” DiPietro said.

Small theaters like NSMT are integral to the success of potential Broadway-bound productions, DiPietro added.

“Regional theaters in the last 10 to 20 years have pretty much become the main development arm for musicals,” he said. “I mean, they’re vital to developing a new show.”

“Musicals are risky because, like any new piece of art, you don’t know if it’s going to be good or not,” he added. “So it takes a certain kind of artistic gutsy-ness in management to open new shows.”

The same creative team is working on a new musical, “Chasing the Song,” about songwriters in New York in the 1960s, DiPietro said.

“Hopefully it will follow a similar path, but a quicker path than `Memphis,’” he said.

If you go

What: “Memphis,” the musical.

When: Dec. 11-23. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Matinee performances are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays.

Where: Citi Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston St., Boston.

How: Call 877-613-0134 or visit http://broadwaytour.net/memphis-boston-citi-colonial-theatre.