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The man who brought rock 'n' roll to the radio is hip, corny, irrepressible, and soulful

Wednesday, Feb 4 2004
The new musical by Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change) and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan tells a story of the birth of rock 'n' roll in a Memphis radio station. A young white DJ, Huey Calhoun -- based on the historical Dewey Phillips -- electrifies and scandalizes Memphis in 1949 by mixing "race" records into a whites-only "blues" show. Calhoun goes on to play Elvis Presley for the first time, as Phillips did, and later hosts his own Rock Shop TV program, which (like Phillips') rivals Dick Clark's Bandstand for national syndication. The Southern jock is too wild for prime time, though: After launching not just a local blues singer but a new style of music, Calhoun loses out to Clark and lapses into obscurity. The story exaggerates Phillips' importance even as it revives his reputation; it feels like a Disney version of the real thing. But the feel-good tale works, thanks to a stunning lead performance by Chad Kimball. Kimball is perfectly cast as Calhoun -- he's hip as well as corny, irrepressible, with a strong soulful voice that improves a few of the songs. The most original number by DiPietro and Bryan is "Dick Clark," about the whiteness of Calhoun's nemesis. Almost every other big number starts with promising beauty -- "The Music of My Soul," "Sin, Degradation, and Communism," "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll" -- but ends in a dumb conventional Broadway rave-up that does no credit to the talents of Kimball and other singers like Montego Glover and J. Bernard Calloway.


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