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Originally published Friday, January 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Music-filled "Memphis" gives social history an R&B hook

"Memphis," a new musical at The 5th Avenue Theatre with Broadway aspirations, tells the love story of a white disc jockey and a black R&B singer in Memphis in the 1950s. It will play in Seattle through Feb. 15.

Seattle Times theater critic

On the Internet

"Memphis": Download an MP3 and a podcast at the 5th Avenue site, www.5thavenue.org/show/Memphis0809

Chad Kimball: www.chadkimball.com

Theater preview

"Memphis"

Continues previews tonight through Wednesday, opens Thursday and runs Tuesdays-Sundays through Feb. 15 at The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $22-$81 (206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org).

Concept: A musical set in 1950s America, as the civil-rights movement ramps up, and black rhythm and blues crosses racial lines to bring together young black and white music fans.

Sound vaguely familiar? Echoes of Village Theatre's hit show "Million Dollar Quartet" and the recent film "Cadillac Records"? Not to mention "Hairspray"?

Yes, "Memphis," in previews now and opening at The 5th Avenue Theatre next week, is part of an emerging pattern of modern musicals that glance back at a pivotal sociocultural era.

But each representation of that period lives by its own merits. And "Memphis" arrives with promising buzz from its California tryouts, plus music and stage veterans nudging it toward a possible Broadway run.

"A producer approached me a few years ago about doing something on the first white disc jockey in Memphis to play R&B music for white teens," explains Joe DiPietro, on how he came to write the book for "Memphis." (He's also penned Broadway's "All Shook Up" and the hit Off Broadway musical "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.")

While many such '50s-themed shows recycle actual pop hits, DiPietro was happy "Memphis" would have a new score. Tapped to compose it? David Bryan, keyboard player, vocalist and songwriter for classic rock band Bon Jovi.

Bryan says his stash of about 20 fresh tunes samples a range of the era's black music — gospel, blues, R&B — played by an onstage backup band.

"I heard it first not as an orchestra or a symphony but a rock band with a hot horn section," he notes. "It's that great Memphis horn sound, with Hammond organ, but modernized with some sophisticated chord changes I've added."

Singing many of Bryan's odes is West Seattle native Chad Kimball, who stars as Huey Calhoun, a young Memphis radio jock. The character is based on several R&B-loving 1950s DJs, particularly Dewey Phillips of Memphis, Tenn.

Christopher Ashley, artistic head of California's La Jolla Playhouse and director of such retro-musicals as "Cry-Baby" and "Xanadu," is staging the production, which the Los Angeles Times praised as "exuberant" and "high-glossed."

Yet all involved, including Seattle arts patron-entrepreneur Ken Alhadeff (who is producing the show with New York's Junkyard Dog Productions), knows retro doesn't always pay — as short-lived Broadway fare like "Cry-Baby" and "All Shook Up" have proved.

"Memphis" has a unique story line. "Basically, it's about a white, nerdy outcast who loves music that's coming from the underground scene in Memphis," DiPietro says.

"He ventures into one of the little African-American nightclubs on Beale Street and winds up falling in love with a black singer, Felicia, played by Montego Glover. Then he tries to get this kind of music to the center of the radio dial, to mainstream Memphis."

Bryan says he had no problem writing in the soul and R&B idiom. "The first band I was in with Jon [Bon Jovi], when we were 16, 17 years old, was a big band with horns. We did Sam and Dave songs, a lot of tunes from [Memphis record company] Stax."

The first tune he wrote for "Memphis" was emblematic. "It's 'Music of My Soul,' and it's the heart, the meat and the potatoes of the show."

No one is more excited about the 5th Avenue tryout than ebullient local boy Kimball, whose career has taken off since he graduated in 1995 from Roosevelt High School, where he was in the drama program. (He also starred in the "Memphis" runs in La Jolla and Menlo Park, Calif.)

Kimball's Broadway credits include "Good Vibrations" and co-starring in "Lennon."

As for "Memphis," Kimball says excitedly, "This is the first time in my professional career I've been able to come back to Seattle with a show. It's always been a dream of mine."

Huey Calhoun, he says, "is the biggest role I've ever played, and the most all- encompassing. I'm offstage for a total of six minutes."

The only problem is squeezing his many local friends and relations in on opening night. When cast members signed up for complimentary opening-night tickets, Kimball jokingly requested 8,500.

"I hope I get at least eight," he says, "because my whole family wants to come."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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