BWW Reviews: Pantages Hosts MEMPHIS, the Musical That Has It All
Winner of the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical, Memphis is an eye-catching, heart-throbbing musical and fictionalized account of how the music business of the 50s actually changed, and as its lead DJ Huey Carmichael would say, it's "fantastical"! Now on its national tour, Memphis docks at the Pantages for two weeks only through August 12, and the production is thrilling from top to bottom with a great book, great score, sensational direction and choreography and a truly fantastic cast of triple threat actors, singers and dancers. Memphis is one those rare shows that gives the audience a realistic picture of radio and the emergence of television as it took possession of the nation in the early 50s.
Giving Memphis its primary thrust is the interracial love story that emerges between white DJ Huey (Bryan Fenkhart) and black r and b singer Felicia (Felicia Boswell). In 1951 before getting his big break at disc jockeying, Huey hangs around an underground club owned by Felicia's brother Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington). He claims their music is his soul, and, of course, Delray wants him out. When Huey asserts that he will get Felicia on the radio, Delray calls him a whitey out to steal the black man's music. But it doesn't stop here. Huey talks his way into a temporary DJ job, pushes the pulsating music, and becomes number # on the airwaves. Felicia eventually gets on and becomes a local favorite. Delray still objects to her involvement with Huey, as does Huey's upstanding Christian mother (Julie Johnson), who views his dating a black girl, like his boasting, a sin against God. Throughout the story Huey refuses to give up the down home qualities that have made him popular, and when he gets a local gig as announcer of an afternoon TV dance program - not unlike Dick Clark's American Bandstand - serious issues arise. Felicia is sought after by RCA, Huey is offered a national show out of New York, if he agrees to have his black dancers replaced by white ones (as sponsors would otherwise pull out). He refuses, and when he also refuses to be discreet with his love for Felicia by kissing her on the air, he loses the respect of the white audience in Memphis, his ratings and his job. Felicia, black victim that she is, may never have another opportunity at stardom, so goes on to New York without him.
The cast, under Christopher Ashley's sharp direction and Sergio Trujillo's ecstatically vibrant choreography, are all terrific. Fenkhart shines as the little guy from nowhere who has the gall to make it big via the American dream, only to be victimized and destroyed by prejudice. His comedic characterization is impeccable. Boswell wins our hearts as the sweet black woman with the big voice. Above anything, she makes Felicia's loyalty her strongest suit. Johnson is fabulous as Gladys, Huey's mom. She is boldly hilarious and knocks "Change Don't Come Easy" out of the park. It is hard to like Delray, but Darrington makes his motivations clear and understandable. Another great singer! Kudos as well to Rhett George as Gator, Will Mann as Bobby who is indeed super with "Big Love" and to the rest of the fine ensemble.
Praise also to David Gallo for his effective set design, Paul Tazewell for bright period costumes, Howell Binkley for superb lighting and Ken Travis for superior sound. They all add greatly to the enjoyment of the brass, the soul that is Memphis. Last, but hardly least, Joe DiPietro has written a tight, taut story that never loses its focus, and David Bryan a sensational musical score, which in its originality, contains all the right ingredients of r and b and rock and roll that were the 50s. A great memorable line from the show describes rock as merely Negro blues sped up.