Reviewed by Judy Richter
It was some 8½ years ago that TheatreWorks presented the world premiere of "Memphis" in Mountain View. My review at the time concluded, "The show does need some work, ... but it's very close to being ready to move on to bigger venues, especially with this dynamite cast, exciting music and first-rate creative team. It's a feel-good show that casts light on a little-known aspect of American musical history."
After becoming a smash on Broadwaywith several cast members from TheatreWorks, a touring production of the show has come to its Silicon Valley birthplace to open Broadway San Jose's fourth season. With it comes an array of 2010 awards, including Tonys for Best Musical, Best Original Score (David Bryan and Joe DiPietro), Best Book (DiPietro) and Best Orchestrations (Bryan and Daryl Waters). The cast and designers are totally different from the original, and the show has undergone substantial revisions. Only about half of its original songs remain, but the basic story, based on a concept by George W. George, is the same.
As implied by the title, the show is set in Memphis during the 1950s, when segregation was still deeply embedded in the South. The central character, Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), is based on DJ Dewey Phillips, who is credited with introducing rock 'n' roll to the American mainstream.
Huey, a white high school dropout who can't read, happens to hear the music emanating from a downstairs black nightclub on Beale Street in Memphis. He's so taken with it that he decides it needs wider exposure. The fictionalized story takes him from the record counter of a department store to a radio station where he manages to play so-called race music. At each place, his white bosses are ready to fire him, but the public response, especially from white teenagers, is so great that he goes on to become one of the city's most popular DJs.
Along the way, he also falls in love with the nightclub's star singer, Felicia Farrell (Felicia Boswell), sister of its owner, Delray Jones (Horace V. Rogers). Neither the protective Delray nor Huey's mother, Gladys Calhoun (Julie Johnson), approves of their relationship. Neither do some rednecks who see them together in public and attack them. Still, thanks in large part to Huey, Felicia becomes a famous singer in her own right, leading to a chance to go to New York. She wants Huey to join her, but he's too tied to Memphis to leave.
The music and the singing, especially by Boswell, are terrific. Director Christopher Ashley keeps the action flowing smoothly. The choreography by Sergio Trujillo is both inventive and energetic, well executed by the ensemble cast, starting with the opening number, "Underground." The onstage band is led by Darryl Archibald on keyboard. The sets are by David Gallo, with costumes by Paul Tazewell, lighting by Howard Binkley and sound by Ken Travis.
The acting also is noteworthy, especially by Boswell, Rogers and Johnson. Fenkart's Huey is more problematic. Even though Huey is supposed to be a bit of a wild man, Fenkart's portrayal is too manic, making him less sympathetic than he should be.
Still, there's no denying the overall power of this show, thanks in large part to its music and dancing.Return to Home Page