The documentary film "The Loving Story" is about a Civil Rights-era black woman and white man sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia for marrying each other.
When Joey Elrose learned he'd been cast in the national tour of the Broadway musical "Memphis," he knew he needed to watch that film.
In "Memphis," which opens Wednesday at the Saroyan Theatre for a two-performance run, Elrose plays Huey Calhoun, a groundbreaking white disc jockey who proposes to a black singer named Felicia Farrell.
"He's all about loving who you want to love, and he doesn't see color," Elrose says of his character.
"Memphis" won four Tony Awards, including best musical, in 2010. While it featured a score rich in period rock, gospel and rhythm and blues, the show emerged as more than just a "jukebox musical" replicating the sounds of an era. Creators David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (lyrics and book) layered the show throughout with hard-hitting 1950s racial complexities, and while there are plenty of inspirational musical numbers, there are also moments of bittersweet introspection about segregation.
Early rock 'n' roll was one of the catalysts of racial desegregation, and it's fitting that a musical celebrates the power of music to affect social change.
"The protagonist of the piece is music," Elrose says. "There's no real antagonist besides society. That's different from most every musical."
The character of Huey is loosely based on a real-life Memphis disc jockey, Dewey Phillips, who was one of the first to play black music on white radio stations. In "Memphis," Huey infiltrates the black underground music scene. He meets Felicia, whose brother is a music promoter. Huey promises to get Felicia's music on the air.
A key to the show is the passionate but troubled relationship between Huey and Felicia, who have to keep their feelings for each other hidden.
Jasmin Richardson plays Felicia, and Elrose says the two had an instant onstage connection at the audition.
"Our producer said he had never seen so much chemistry onstage," he says.
Felicia's vocals require a full-throttled sound. But Huey's vocals call for something a little looser. When Chad Kimball, who received a Tony nomination, originated the role in the show, he used an almost outrageous twang that played up the eccentricity and volatility of his character.
Elrose knew he'd have to start fresh with his interpretation of Huey, and while he did listen to the original cast recording and watch the video version of the show, he challenged himself not to expose himself too much.
"I don't go as far as Chad goes on the video," he says. "I feel I'm very grounded in the character. The buffoonery slips through the cracks. Huey has a radio personality and a real-life personality, and sometimes they mix and sometimes they don't."
Elrose grew up far from the South — in Queens, N.Y.. He went to the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan and Adelphi University in Long Island. "Memphis" is his third national tour and big break, after stints as understudy for Danny Zuko in "Grease" and as a swing in "Rock of Ages."
Many of the songs in the show have a hard-driving sound — no surprise since Bryan, the composer, is the keyboardist for Bon Jovi. And that's just fine for Elrose.
"I've always loved the rock and roll sound. I listened to a lot of cruiser music, a lot of Elvis growing up."
And he sees a lot of himself in the character of Huey — especially his stubbornness and sarcastic streak. "I think I was groomed for this role, to be honest," he says. "My family came and saw me and said: 'You're just being yourself on stage.' "
This second national tour (using nonunion performers) has taken the cast to all parts of the country, including the South. Elrose is well-aware that for some people — even some in the audience — interracial marriage is looked down upon, even today.
Gay marriage, he says, is another example of people not being able in some parts of the country to marry the person they love.
"You can totally relate it to what's going on now," he says. "We've come a long way, but we have a ways to go."
"Memphis," 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St. broadwayinfresno.com, (800) 745-3000. $33-$58
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, email@example.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.