The 2010 Tony-winning Best Musical “Memphis” has landed at the Fox Theatre for the first time on its first national tour, and people are ready for it. After last night’s sold-out opening, I think it’s safe to say that “Memphis” will play in Peoria, as the old showbiz bromide goes. It’s here only through February 5; if you want to see it, stop reading this review right now and order tickets (then come back and finish it—thanks).
Victor Hugo said, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Please bear that in mind and picture Memphis, Tennessee, early 1950’s. America’s booming in post war “Leave It to Beaver” time. But underneath the white bread serenity, in Memphis’ black underground Beale Street nightclubs, an earthy, joyous, soul-stirring music is bursting to make itself heard.
Enter Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), a high school dropout, white, scrappy, eager for a different sound and a different life. He pops into an all-black club one night, is eyed suspiciously, but begins to win the crowd over when he sings “The Music of My Soul.” Huey has heard the beautiful Felicia (Felicia Boswell) sing and is smitten with her voice and with her. Felicia’s protective brother Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington) is understandably wary; crossing racial lines in the 50’s was a dangerous thing; and “Memphis” does not shy away from the injustice and ugliness of racism.
Huey gets a job at a local radio station (his character is based loosely on Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips, who first got Elvis Presley played on the radio) and tells Felicia he’ll get her music played on the air. This is a bold claim because Huey is not even a deejay yet. But he has a crazy kind of charisma and a reckless confidence that tends to win people over, including his own mother (Julie Johnson, in a knockout performance), who is initially horrified at Huey’s fondness for “race music.”
“Memphis” has a book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, music and lyrics by David Bryan (Bon Jovi’s keyboardist); both of these men won Tony Awards. The brilliant choreography is by Sergio Trujillo; direction by Christopher Ashley.
The performers are top-notch, many from the “Memphis” Broadway company. Ms. Boswell stops the show with “Colored Woman” and is radiant the whole evening. Mr. Fenkart’s Huey is a performance of depth, fun, and complexity. Other standouts include the aforementioned Mr. Darrington and Ms. Johnson, Rhett George, Will Mann, and William Parry.
Some critics have carped that the music is really pseudo soul-rock-blues and not the real thing, and further noted that the show is more about an era than a person. I suppose there’s some validity in that, but I would say that as musical theatre (and that’s the medium in question), “Memphis”rocks; and it carries the audience along. And the talent level of the performers is so high that they make a good song sound great.
The show is slick, yes, but effortlessly polished and professional. You’ll have a really good time; and good luck getting tickets.
For tickets and information, visit www.broadwayacrossamerica.com.