Thursday, August 2, 2012

MEMPHIS Sings the Music of Our Souls at the Pantages

Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart. Photo by Paul Kolnik

On the heels of the news that the Tony Award-winning musical MEMPHIS will recoup its $12 million investment by the time it plays its final performance on Broadway on August 5th, comes a terrific opening of the national touring production at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. After originating last fall at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, TN, the “fantastical” tour has been playing to packed houses and showing regional audiences what it’s like to feel the heat.

There’s no doubt that David Bryan (music & lyrics) and Joe DiPietro’s (lyrics & book) glossy musical about a white DJ whose heart beats to the music of a soul that doesn’t care what color skin the musician has and the black singer he falls in love with, is electrifying. Romance that defies barriers always generates heat, and in the segregated South during the 1950s, a black/white couple risked violence simply by being seen walking down the street together. And sharing a kiss in public? You could get beaten to the point that you’ll never be able to have children for that. It happens in MEMPHIS and it’s a sobering end of Act I that prompted a lively discussion with my guest during intermission.

We talked about prejudice, about the inequality of opportunities and choices in the ‘50s depending on the color of your skin, and what it would feel like to not even feel safe in the town in which you lived. And we talked about parallels today, recognizing that, while the names and situations may be different, we still have much to do to right the injustices that happen all around us.

Even the next day, when I ran into a friend who also saw the opening night performance, our discussion turned to the very same topics. For me, these are the exciting and powerful gifts of theatre. It gets us talking. It forces us to examine our beliefs, to take a stand when we see what’s wrong in the world, and to vow to do better. It holds a mirror up and asks if we like what we see. If we don't, the responsibility then exists to change.

Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) is loosely based on Memphis DJ, Dewey Phillips, one of the first white jocks to play black music in the 1950s. The likeable hillbilly from the rundown side of the town doesn’t have much going for him – heck he can’t even read – but he does have a unique oddball charm and an obsession with rock and roll that’s enough to take him from stock boy to DJ in record time. And ‘hockadoo’ if he doesn’t become the most popular radio man in town by playing ‘race music’ the teenagers can’t get enough of.

He falls in love with Felicia (Felicia Boswell), the beautiful black singer who performs at her brother’s club on Beale Street and promises that he will get her on the radio and make her a star. Her brother Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington) has good reason to be more than a little skeptical and when that day comes, there’s a hefty price to pay.

Both Fenkart and Boswell have covered their roles on Broadway and now get the chance to make them their own on the tour. Fenkart captures Huey’s innocence, has crazy good comic timing, and wins the audience over as he wins over Felicia, plus he sings the pants off his eleven o’clock number “Memphis Lives in Me.” Boswell is sexy, sophisticated, and a powerful singer with an extraordinary vocal range. From “Colored Women,” to “Someday” she finds all the subtle colors needed to move you with the sound of her voice.

It’s an accomplished cast full of terrific performances. From Darrington, who is a menacing and dynamic presence to the poignant performance of Gator (Rhett George), to the surprising triple threat Bobby (Will Mann), everyone gets an opportunity to take the spotlight. Julie Johnson’s transition from Huey’s prejudiced mother to a warmer, more accepting woman comes with a hell-raising revival number “Change Don’t Come Easy” and veteran actor William Parry gives a solid performance as Huey’s boss, Mr. Simmons.

Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is bursting with kinetic energy as the dancers throw themselves sensuously into each other’s arms at the club, or bounce down the street in their sneakers and teenage delirium. Director Christopher Ashley builds this world with an increasing tension that plays to the strengths of the music, the performances, and the message. And with the exception of a somewhat cheesy transition that drops the plot and cuts to the final scene, it's a satisfying, thoroughly enjoyable musical. 

Especially enjoyable is the band, led by Alvin Hough, Jr., that often slides on center stage as part of the action and features local favorite Darryl Archibald as associate conductor and second keyboard. David Bryan’s music is full of catchy tunes you walk out the door singing and these musicians do it up right. A richly textured multi-leveled set, stunning lighting effects, and gorgeous jewel tone costumes complete the sensational look of the show.

Scenic design is by Tony Award-winner David Gallo; lighting design is by Tony Award-winner Howell Binkley; costume design is by Tony nominee Paul Tazewell and sound design is by Ken Travis.

MEMPHIS packs a lot into its electrifying 2 hours and 20 minutes. Stylish, upbeat, and full of heart, it's a show you'll love.  MEMPHIS runs through August 12th at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. For tickets and more information go to www.BroadwayLA.org.

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