Written by David Bryan (Music, Lyrics)
Talented cast, high energy hoofing make ‘Memphis’ worth the journey
|Marcus Center for the Performing Arts presents|
Review by Harry Cherkinian
Considering all the advancements made in race relations since the 20th Century, Memphis is an entertaining yet nostalgic look back at when the racially segregated lines were drawn in the 1950s—geographically and otherwise–when white folks and black folks kept to their own. That is until an energetic white upstart, Huey Calhoun, crossed those lines into the Beale Street Club based on the incredible singing and music he heard.
Memphis is also the Tony Award winning musical based around the life of Memphis DJ Phillips. Phillips actually championed “race music” and crossed lines to do so. And his onstage counterpart in the form of the Calhoun character gets the message across, loud and clear within his naïve huckster persona in getting everybody to just get along and celebrate the music.
Yes, we’ve seen all this done before (think: Hairspray in particular) and the music is a mash-up of blues, gospel and rock ‘n’ roll, of which the show proclaims to be the start of the movement. Despite some of the more than obvious clichés and derivative sounds, Memphis works—and grows on us in that “feel good, fight the good fight” feeling.
“Rock ‘n roll is just black people’s music sped up,” says the black singer Felicia Farrell whose powerhouse vocals initially draw Calhoun into the club owned by Felicia’s highly suspicious brother, Delray. However, these two societal outcasts later become lovers in hiding, which further reinforces the racially divided lines within Memphis.
The point is driven home right at show’s start, quite humorously, when a white DJ announces the song he just played: Whitey White & the White Tones with “Whiter than You." And the show’s author Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) makes sure the audience understands just how whiter than white the music industry has been up to that point, with references to Perry Como and Patti Page. Okay. We get it. And we also know a change is gonna come.
Calhoun manages to put some color—literally—onto the radio dial and airwaves, promoting the “race music” he so passionately believes in. Once an outsider, he is soon welcomed into the circle of black singers and musicians who perform at the Beale Street Club. And Calhoun’s character is pivotal to bridging the communities and making Memphis work. Fortunately actor Bryan Fenkart is well cast as Calhoun (he understudied the role on Broadway), a tricky role given that Calhoun is a sum total of the show’s attitudes: idealism, innocence, courage and ultimately free thinker who helps others to do just that. It’s also a physically demanding role given the singing and dancing, and Fenkart more than delivers.
His counterpart Felicia, expertly played to the hilt by Felicia Boswell, deftly balances the vocal and dancing chores with a sassy sexiness and, when needed, a vulnerability that makes the couple all the more believable.
DiPietro won Tony Awards for his book and original score (sharing lyrics with David Bryan of Bon Jovi, who handled the music duties). With song titles like the upbeat “Everybody Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night” to the anthemic “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails,” the creators make sure to tug on all the emotions a musical can contain—and in Memphis, that’s a lot.
And they make sure we get the musical markers along the path to “race music” becoming just “music”: that guy with the duckbill top and fancy foot moves? A mix of Chuck Berry meets James Brown. The coy, flirtatious girl group sounds? A conjuring up of an early Diana Ross and the Supremes. Even Huey’s mother’s name is Gladys (a nod to the King, Elvis Presley whose mother had the same name).
At times, the music sounds more ‘80s than ‘50s (Bon Jovi’s hey day?) but thanks to the cast and the high energy choreography by Sergio Trujillo, the show’s momentum pulls us in as we root for the pair of racially segregated lovebirds, blurring the lines separating “race music” until the sounds become “one.”
Director Christopher Ashley understands what makes Memphis shine, and that’s the singing and dancing. He keeps the show moving amid David Gallo’s smartly designed set of subterranean clubs to newly emerging TV studios, that complements the action, rather than overshadows it.
And if we’ve been down this road before, it’s still worth going all the way to Memphis just one more time for the uplifting fun of it all.
Memphis continues through January 13th at Uihlein Hall, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water Street (map). Tickets are $30-$80, and are available by phone (414-273-7206) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at MarcusCenter.org. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Paul Kolnik
Felicia Boswell (Felicia); Bryan Fenkart (Huey); William Perry (Mr. Simmons); Bree Banker (Clara, White Mother); Peter Matthew Smith (Buck Wiley, Martin Holton); Austin Owen (Perry Como, Frank Dryer); Tami Dahbura (Mama, Gladys); Christopher Gurr (White DJ, Mr. Collins, White Father, Gordon Grant); Preston W. Dugger III (Black DJ, Be Black Trio); Horace V. Rogers (Delray); Rhett George (Gator); Will Mann (Bobby); Kent Overshown (Wailin’ Joe, Reverend Hobson); Lindsay Roberts, Kelcy Griffin (Someday Backup Singers, ensemble); Naimah Saleem (Someday Backup Singer, Ethel, ensemble); Jarvis D. McKinley, Justin Prescott (Be Black Trio, ensemble); Jillian Mueller (Teenager, ensemble); Alexandar Aguilar, Adrienne Howard, Jill Morrison, Jody Reynard, Derek St. Pierre (ensemble)
Darryl Archibald (music conductor, keyboard 1); Victor Simonson (asst. conductor, keyboard 2); Trevor Holder (drums); Dave Matos (guitar); Enzo Penizzotto (bass); Paul Baron (trumpet); Chris Rinaman (trombone); Maximilian Schweiger, Michael Gohler (reeds)
behind the scenes
Christopher Ashley (director); Darryl Archibald (music director); Sergio Trujillo (choreography); Daryl Waters, David Bryan (orchestrations); David Gallo (set); Howell Binkley (lighting); Paul Tazewell (costumes); Ken Travis (sound design); Michael Keller (music coordinator); Paul Kolnik (photos)