Memphis! Spectacular Memphis
***** (five stars)
Reviewed by Richard DiMaggio
You had no idea what to expect. You got more than you bargained for. Race and Romance back in “the day” in Memphis was always a potent combination, and Memphis brought both together in a theatrical performance that left many people leaving Proctors overheard saying, “One of the best plays I’ve ever seen.”
Indeed, it was.
Memphis is a fairly new play. It opened on Broadway in 2009, and won the Tony for Best Musical one year later. It is based on a DJ by the name of Dewey Phillips, who was one of the first white DJs to play black music back in the 1950′s.
Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) works in a record store and finds himself stumbling into a bar because he heard a woman singing and loved her voice. He is ignorant of the fact that he is the only white person in the bar, even when that detail is pointed out to him. He is mesmerized—as was the audience—by the beauty and vocal talent of Felicia (Felicia Boswell), who has the voice of an angel.
Felicia can sing, and sing she does.
Huey sees a talent and swears he will get her on the radio. After getting fired from his job in the record store for selling “black music”, Huey eventually commandeers a radio station and beams the voice of his angel out to the world. Just when his boss storms in to fire him, the phones start ringing and youth everywhere are listening to the station and buying records. Eventually love and big money move in, as Felicia works for a private label and Huey works for his own tv show.
But there is at least one thing standing in the way: Racism. This is the deep south, this is Memphis, and the thought of a white guy with a black girl spelled trouble. Worse yet, suddenly white teens are listening to black music, which is bigger trouble. Felicia begs to move north where “things are safe”, and where big record labels are never far away.
‘Memphis’ is packed with emotion, great dancing, and great song. You do feel for Huey and Felicia: You will laugh with them and you will cry with them. You feel their pain every step of the way: It is the pain of unexploded creative energy, of budding romance, of pending stardom, and the pain of a world that wants none of the above.
I wish I could say there was one weak link in this musical, but they are hard to find. Felicia Boswell is a talent we rarely see, and we hope to see more of her. But we hope to see more of this entire cast. They complement each other perfectly. Huey is not the best voice ever, but he’s not supposed to be. He is, however, the best Huey ever: He is brilliant and innocent in a clumsy sort of way, or as he says it, “When did I become blacker than you?” He sees the world through a different pair of glasses when the world wasn’t ready for them. Fenkart pulls together what had to be a difficult piece: Part southern, part genius, part unable to read, part southern twang, but all Huey. And his mom (Julie Johnson) has her own set of lungs that keeps her son in line.
The dancers hold the beat in the background and are never far away, balancing the chaos on the stage and keeping the tempest upbeat as an interracial relationship in the deep south tries to ignite against all odds. As the world seems to rock Huey and Felicia in life’s challenges, the dancers are there for them, keeping them grounded in a very mean and confusing world.
Memphis is a fairly new musical, inspired by actual events. Felicia’s singing is nothing short of breathtaking. While she may be the pillar of this show, along with Huey, they stood on the shoulders of an extremely capable cast and crew.
“From the underground dance clubs of 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, comes a hot new Broadway musical that bursts off the stage with explosive dancing, irresistible songs and a thrilling tale of fame and forbidden love.
“Inspired by actual events, Memphis is about a white radio DJ who wants to change the world and a black club singer who is ready for her big break. Come along on their incredible journey to the ends of the airwaves — filled with laughter, soaring emotion and roof-raising rock ‘n’ roll.
“Winner of four 2010 Tony Awards® including Best Musical, Memphis , which played pre-Broadway at the La Jolla Playhouse, features a Tony®-winning book by Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) and a Tony®-winning original score with music by Bon Jovi founding member David Bryan. Directing is Tony® nominee Christopher Ashley (Xanadu), and choreography is by Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys).
“Get ready to experience Broadway’s most exciting new destination~ what AP calls “THE VERY ESSENCE OF WHAT A BROADWAY MUSICAL SHOULD BE.”’