Stage Review: Memphis: The Musical
by Jeff Ritter
Published: May 4, 2012
One of the big reasons I enjoy reviewing musicals at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis is the wide variety of music in their shows. I've found that you get a little of everything over the course of most Fox Theatre seasons. In the last six months I've heard the Rat Pack croon and cheerleaders rap. Tonight, I was privileged to see the birth of Rock & Roll unfold before me in Memphis: The Musical, a show both entertaining and thought-provoking.
The show is set against the backdrop of Memphis in the 1950s. Music was meek and mild, at least on "white" radio. On Beale Street, in the black clubs and speakeasies, things were vibrant. Soulful songstresses weren't singing sanitized, publicly acceptable ditties about doggies and rainbows. They were singing from the heart and drawing deeply on their experiences as second class citizens. Rhythm and blues had its place, down at the far end of the radio dial where short range transmitters barely reached their intended audiences. One of these R&B singers was Felicia Ferrell, played by Felicia Boswell. Her gospel choir-trained voice carried beyond the threshold of her brother Delray's (Quentin Earl Darrington) club and stopped professional loser Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) in his tracks. He wandered inside to see what this joyful noise was, not even noticing that he was the only white person in the room. The suspicious patrons scorned him, but it was too late. He was hooked; he had found his muse.
Huey landed a job at a struggling radio station that was geared to the white audience, playing standards like Perry Como. Huey raged through the airwave like the proverbial bull in the china shop, breaking every rule, tradition and social mores he could and earning the station bigger and better ratings and money than they'd ever seen. He played black records to white audiences. He put Felicia on the radio with a live performance and the two became Memphis celebrities.
Memphis in the 1950s wasn't a progressive city at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Blacks mistrusted whites in their neighborhoods and businesses and white felt much the same about the blacks. Like Romeo and Juliet, Huey and Felicia were born polar opposites but found themselves in love. Not everyone shared their enthusiasm for the relationship. Delray was extremely protective of his sister and Mama Calhoun (Julie Johnson) was a God-fearing white Christian woman to whom an interracial relationship bordered on blasphemy. While Huey had a lot of fans amongst the black and white youth, there were those who could not abide such cross-contamination of opposed cultures. The star-crossed lovers were subjected to hate speech (long before the term was coined) and violence, and the rigors of rising fame. Despite it all, Huey remained devoted to his voice that spoke to his soul. Felicia loved him, but after a brutal beating she began to consider leaving intolerant Tennessee to try to make it in the Big Apple.
Huey's boss, Mr. Simmons (William Parry) managed to acquire a local television station and Huey is suddenly the star of his own TV show. Some of Delray's club patrons that once regarded Huey with suspicion were now part of the show. Gator (Rhett George), a shy young man who found his voice as he was swept up in Huey's wave of fame is the show's mascot while former custodian Bobby (Will Mann) is something of an Ed McMahon to Calhoun's Carson. Both Felicia and the Calhoun Cavalcade attract the attention of the New York media honchos. It's down to Huey or some kid from Philadelphia named Dick Clark. But Huey's personal pride and overdeveloped sense of showmanship leads him to make a climactic decision that changes everything.
If you're extremely sensitive about race issues or the use of racial epithets, be warned, Memphis does not shy away from them. It's not saturated with foul language, but there's certainly enough to make some people uncomfortable. I found that it lent an element of authenticity to the show. Too often people steer clear of sensitive topics to avoid offending anyone, but the stage is no place for the timid. The only punches pulled in this performance were thrown during the attack on Huey and Felicia. Even though it was staged, you could easily imagine such an attack occurring in those days and sadly still today. Race and bigotry is still an issue even in these so-called "enlightened" times. Lest you think the show was all violence and gloom, worry not. It's a Broadway musical, after all, and despite the many obstacles along the way the show is uplifting and ends happily, even if the unlikely couple doesn't implicitly live happily ever after.
The stars here are clearly Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart. Miss Boswell has an impressive résumé, having lent her vibrant voice to national tours of Aida and Dreamgirls and regional performances of Beehive (where she played Diana Ross) and Rent. She's as fine an actress as she is a singer. Mr. Fenkart was impossible to take your eyes from. He was constantly in motion, filling in the background with boundless energy while the spotlight shone on his co-stars. When Huey was the focus, Bryan brought him to life with charm and wit. He's originating the Huey role on the national tour and leaving a mark that will be tough to follow. Like millions of others, I'm a huge fan of the TV drama Justified, and at times Huey reminded me of the character Dewey Crow, skillfully portrayed by Jeremy Davies. The redneck drawl, the knack for speaking before thinking and generally just finding himself perpetually in trouble with someone are all traits these two wonderful characters share. Bryan's singing voice was fine, but I was a bit more impressed by his spot-on comedic timing and delivery.
The supporting cast and ensemble players kept things lively throughout, particularly through the fantastic choreography of Sergio Trujillo, who won a Tony Award for Memphis as did the creative team of Joe DiPietro (book and co-lyrics) and David Bryan (music and co-lyrics). David has been rocking arenas as the keyboardist for Bon Jovi since the band started playing New Jersey rock clubs 26 years ago. The sets were simple yet impressively effective, designed by the exceptional craftsman David Gallo. Tony-nominated director Christopher Ashley brought it all together in what felt like record time, no pun intended. When the cast took their bows I was surprised to find that the night was over. It hadn't run short; it simply held my interest unwaveringly from start to finish. You can't ask for much more than that.
Memphis: The Musical runs for two weeks, May 1-13, at the Fabulous Fox Theatre.