“Memphis the Musical” is a jubilant romp into a dark, blues-filled period of American history. The first scene opens in a smoky, underground Beale Street club where blacks go to let off steam from the repressive climate of the 1950s. Huey Calhoun, a white boy in mismatched clothes, steals into the bar just as Felicia Farrell finishes the first number. The patrons start to scatter at his sight, but Huey lures them back with the promise that he didn’t come to stir up trouble; he came because he heard the music of his soul. Felicia, the club owner, Delray’s, sister, joins him in song, sparking both their romantic interest in each other and their aspirations for greatness.
Like many of the historical implications of this story, the lead character is loosely based on Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips who introduced black music, and the likes of Elvis Presley, to white audiences of the day. But audiences should not expect this to mirror all of the horrors of period racism (or even address the less visible prejudices more present today), instead they will find the glossier interpretation that only a solid musical like “Memphis” can convey, belting it out one note at a time. That isn’t to say that “Memphis” doesn’t tackle its subject head-on, but simply that you won’t see anything you haven’t seen before. To its credit, though, the show covers those tracks well.
“Memphis” is about the power of the medium of radio, and by the second act, television, and how it enacted change and paved the way for civil rights – something that surely resonates with modern audiences as they witness the effects of Twitter, Facebook and email all in real time. No one would deny, I don’t think, that online social media these days bears at least the influence that radio did then, if not more so for our greater access to its content. Therein lays the musical’s relevance: not necessarily in its discussion of miscegenation, bigotry or even hope (which has been covered in campier offerings like Hair and more artful ones like West Side Story), but in the social and surprising and painful nature of change doled out in our everyday lives.
It doesn’t hurt that several of the cast members come straight from the Broadway production, lending this iteration of “Memphis” a fluid ease that only comes from actors who know their parts inside and out. The show never lacks for shining, rousing numbers that make you want to gyrate in your seat a little. It’s got some soul.
It is hard to argue with popularity, too. Typical for the Walton Arts Center, the musical comes armed to the hilt with accolades. The Broadway production won four Tony awards in 2010 including the most coveted, Best Musical. Credit for the music goes to David Bryan, the keyboardist of the famed band Bon Jovi. While not quite as successful as the rockers who have musicaled before him (Duncan Sheik springs to mind), he gets pretty close to the bullseye. Thankfully, perhaps, accomplished playwright and author Joe DiPietro assisted on the lyrics and wrote the book.
I have to say that here, finally, is a musical worth its weight in music. Felicia Boswell, who plays rising star Felicia Farrell in the show, is just that. She knocks out the robust, impressive performance such music requires and all with a grace that isn’t so staged it can’t be felt.
Huey isn’t necessarily the star of the show in terms of vocal gymnastics, but he is ever at the center. Bryan Fenkart plays the character to its fullest, lending every quirk believable consistency. Hockadoo, Huey’s catchphrase, captures all the charm and gloss of his part. He is the perfect foolish hero, brave and ultimately unyielding.
Fenkart’s voice isn’t half-bad, either, but he is overshadowed by the juicy potency of his co-stars. I rarely leave a popular musical with the desire to own the soundtrack, but by Wednesday morning I realized I wanted to give so many of these songs another listen.
One of my favorite numbers, performed by Julie Johnson as Huey’s mother, “Change Don’t Come Easy,” is expected, yes – her character evinces some of the starker racist reactions to Huey’s colorblind DJ-ing career, but realizes by the end that she was wrong – but it is a song with soul and, well, sheer chutzpah. Her gusto and gravity were a refreshing combination, which spiced a scene that nearly brought the audience to their feet.
Gator, the bartender of Delray’s who went mute upon witnessing his father lynched, finds his voice (well, this is a musical) when Huey carries the battered body of Felicia into the bar after an encounter with white men who witnessed them kissing. Gator, played beautifully by musician Rhett George, is a lovely sideline here. His response to the violence is encapsulated in the song’s title, “Say a Prayer,” and closes the first act, finally striking at the magnitude of the desperate fear and the desperate hope of the pre-Civil Rights South.
Today, the portrayal of 50s era race relations are undeniably commonplace, being the subject of any number of movies, plays and books. And while we may feel we have come a great distance, calling for fanfare at the ascension of progress, my experience with “Memphis” makes me think we need to push further still. At the height of Huey’s radio career he boasts that he is at the center of the dial, reaching the largest listening audience. By the end, he finds he has returned to the edge, once again prattling into the mic of a small sound box of a studio. “Memphis the Musical” is in so many ways a delight, but in the end it seems to sail past some of the more difficult static until it hits a clearer station. Perhaps that is what we crave, but it may not be exactly what we need to hear.
“Memphis the Musical” will be showing at the Walton Arts Center through February 10th. Ticket prices vary and can be purchased at waltonartscenter.org or by calling 479-443-5600. If you see the show, and I hope you do, let me know what you thought.