Turn the radio on: Bryan Fenkart plays a radio DJ crossing the racial divide in Memphis.

Trieu Tran’s true story Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam is Shakespearean in its tragedy: At the age of six, he fled fallen Saigon with his mother and sisters. His first memory of his father is of him tied up and bloodied by the Viet Cong; his first brush with death came at the hands of Thai pirates. Just when you think things couldn’t get worse, they do—but not without hope, the promise of the American dream for an actor who’s since gone on to Sorkin dramas (The Newsroom) and big-budget films.

In his world-premiere solo show at ACT, Tran has crafted a brave, riveting piece of theater around a story that’s too infrequently told: of the Vietnamese in “the American War.” As the rapidly beating heart of the show, he switches quickly between stories of his Viet Nam and the culture shock of being a refugee in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan—a place of “pale white skies and pale white snow, where pale white people are always smiling.” His family finally lands in Boston, where a teenage Tran gets straight A’s at prestigious Boston Latin and throws down after school in an Italian gang. Solace comes in the form of hip-hop and Shakespeare—and now, through the nightly exorcising of ghosts onstage. I feel lucky that I was allowed to listen.

Speaking of Shakespeare: A familiar Romeo and Juliet story of unlikely lovers (set to a rock-and-R&B score) returned to Seattle this week. Before winning the Tony for best musical in Broadway in 2010, Memphis was a work-in-progress at 5th Avenue Theatre, with Roosevelt High grad Chad Kimball playing Huey, a goofball white 1950s radio DJ with a forbidden love of “race music” and a black lounge singer named Felicia. It was heavy on song and dance, light on storyline, wrote the Seattle Times; and the show ran in two gears “neutral and (more often, and too quickly) overdrive.”

They seem to have worked out the kinks, because the touring production of Memphis could lead a master class in musicals. It has it all: rafter-reaching voices, polished choreography, a score by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan that moves the story along briskly, and actual moments of heart that don’t seem ripped from a Hallmark movie. Bryan Fenkart stands in for Kimball and doesn’t miss a beat.

Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam
Thru Oct 7, ACT Theatre, $20–$55

Memphis
Thru Oct 7, 5th Avenue Theatre, $29–$109

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