BWW Reviews: MEMPHIS at 5th Avenue is Back and, in Some Ways, Better
Back in 2008 Seattle audiences were treated to the pre-Broadway tryout of what would become the 2010 Tony Award winner for best musical, "Memphis" by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan. And as amazing as the show was back then, the current production at the 5th Avenue Theatre shows how much better it got since it left us and how good American musical theater can be.
Loosely based on the life of Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, we follow the aimless Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) as he searches to do something with his life that he loves. But the only thing he really loves is R&B music and one night finds himself in the black part of town and wandering into Delray's club where he hears The Most Amazing sound coming from the owner's sister Felicia (Felicia Boswell). Naturally Huey falls for the sound and the girl but in 1955, that just isn't done. Huey vows to get her heard by a wider audience and manages to get himself a job on one of the white radio stations and becomes one of the first white DJs to play "race" music in the center of the radio dial. But even though he's able to get Felicia's music more accepted, he still cannot get their relationship as accepted.
Aside from the fact that the show has one of the most incredible R&B scores out there, the structure of the show has tightened up and the story is a total winner now. Completely engaging and affecting with a heart that doesn't quit. Add into that the stellar choreography by Sergio Trujillo and the show only needs a cast to pull it off.
Felicia Boswell in MEMPHIS" width="300" height="237" />Now in the original production (and the pre-Broadway tryout) we had the amazing Chad Kimball and Montego Glover of whom it would be hard to top. And as much as I loved the originals, Fenkart and Boswell in some ways outshined them. Both have outstanding voices, of course, but both also manage a somewhat subtler portrayal of these two and have even better chemistry together. And even with such a previously stylized character as Calhoun, Fenkart takes the role and honors it but makes it his own and gives the character a remarkable arc complete with some truly touching moments at the end. The rest of The cast too gives outstanding performances to rival their predecessors. Horace V. Rogers, Rhett George and Will Mann as club owner and denizens Delray, Gator and Bobby each shine with some powerhouse voices and stirring performances. And Julie Johnson turns in a singular performance as Huey's Mama and practically brings the house down with her rendition of "Change Don't Come Easy".
If you can't tell, I loved this show. I loved it then and I love it even more now. And I'm so glad to see that it's only gotten better with age. If you saw the original when it was here, you need to see this one to relive the joy and add that cherry of change on the top. And if you were kicking yourself for missing it before then you really NEED to see it now before it's gone again. A true winner that completely inhabits the music of your soul.
"Memphis" plays at the 5th Avenue Theatre through October 7th. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.
Photo credit: Paul Kolnik