I have this T-shirt with Leon Russell's silhouette on it, and I wear it in Leon's honor for two reasons: He's only the greatest honky-tonk piano man since Jerry Lee Lewis, and nobody (with the possible exception of the late Billy Preston) has a keener sense of his own music's biracial appeal. His hard rock and Southern gospel shadings change places on a dime; he vamps with his left hand like Billy Joel one minute and “Jelly Roll” Morton the next. His “Master of Space and Time” moniker has worn thin since the early '70s, but even today, he's the undisputed expert on both.I wore my Leon shirt to Memphis, La Jolla Playhouse's current entry, in the hopes I'd feel more at home. It worked.
The music, of course, drives this production—and Sergio Trujillo's informed choreography fuels the exhaustive grit behind it. Writer Joe DiPietro's central character does lose focus late in the piece—meanwhile, Russell would kill for this music and this show, because the best qualities of the black and white genres relentlessly intermix. And if David Bryan's tunes and lyrics are good enough for Leon, they're certainly all right by me.
Wiry, pepper-pot white DJ Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball) had the unmitigated gall to play black-recorded R&B (and coin the buzzword “Hockadoo”) in Memphis in the mid-1950s. Calhoun's listenership skyrockets amid his infectious flair and homespun ways; he'd go on to host a TV dance show and defy the brass with his outrageous behavior. That same MO would get him fired and consigned to a backwater Memphis radio station, where he'd spend the next 15 years. His courage of conviction wouldn't let him sell out, even as he'd turn to the bottle and the fading memories of his affair with black R&B crooner Felicia (a ravishing Montego Glover).
At one crucial point, we can't quite tell if success has gone to Huey's head or if he's merely reminding management how far public acceptance of so-called “Negro blues” has taken his show. DiPietro needs to resolve that conflict, as director Christopher Ashley can't be expected to repair it from his end. Meanwhile, for all his nasality, Kimball has a surprisingly sturdy singing voice, especially up against that of Beale Street club owner Delray (an excellent J Bernard Calloway), who never quite gives in to Calhoun's passion for early R&B. “You didn't make that music,” he spits at Huey early in the show. “It ain't your music to take!”
That's bullshit, of course. Regardless of genre, music is everybody's to take—and in Memphis' case, it's Calhoun's to give. But for DiPietro's transgressions, he does just that with energy, fun and, most important, a heavy dose of irreverence. Just see if you can sit still to “Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll,” the show's no-holds barred finale, with all 26 cast members at the tops of their lungs and musical director Kenny Seymour's tight band at full blast. Leon's likeness is rarely so de rigueur. This review is based on the matinée performance of Sept. 7. Memphis runs through Sept. 28 at The Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive in La Jolla. $46-$75. 858-550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org.