Race relations in the South have been the subject of many a play. Memphis, the four-time Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, takes on this subject with a slight twist as it focuses very much on the 1950s music scene. We meet a white, young music enthusiast, Huey Callhoun (Bryan Fenkart), in an underground music club in 1950s Memphis. Huey stands out in this club as it is frequented by African Americans not allowed in the other music halls in the city. He is mesmerized by a young, stunning rhythm and blues singer, Felicia (Felicia Boswell), who is performing at the club. As the two develop a relationship and become more deeply involved in their city’s emerging rock and roll music scene, they must face a community that is not so tolerant of interracial relationships and struggle to make the hard choices about their personal lives and careers in this largely segregated city.
In essence, it’s a story we have all heard before- boy meets girl under less-than-ideal circumstances and they are brought together by a mutual love for music. To that end, Joe DiPietro’s book is hardly revolutionary although it does offer some quirky dialogue for the off-beat Huey. David Bryan (Music) and Joe DiPietro’s (Lyrics) Tony Award-winning score, likewise, is largely derivative though it is certainly catchy. The marvelous cast, however, makes this production something that should definitely be seen.
Under the direction of Christopher Ashley, Fenkart shines as the ambitious, but not-so-bright, Huey Callhoun. While the character could be very grating due to his incessant use of the word ‘hockadoo’ and general stupidity, Fenkart makes him lovable and endearing. This is no small feat. In the end, I was rooting for Huey to succeed and admired his can-do attitude no matter the cost. His fine acting skills are equally matched by his high-power singing. “Memphis Lives in Me” is a vocal highlight.
Boswell is an equal match for Fenkart as she takes on the black diva singer role. While she has some tendency to over-act in the more dramatic scenes depicting the aftermath of race-based violence, she excels in the tender moments and displays earnest and purposeful emotions. She is equally successful in embodying her character’s essence and love for music as she sings in clubs, concerts, and at radio stations. Her take on the contemplative “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails” is another shining vocal moment.
It is simply one of the finest casts I’ve seen in national tours in recent years. For that reason alone, ‘Memphis’ is sure to be an audience pleaser.
Beyond the two leads, several other cast members deserve special mention. Julie Johnson, as Huey’s mama, has the 1950s Southern Christian white woman down-pat. Although her transformation from ‘stuck-in-her-ways-conservative’ to ‘tolerant, belting diva’ is slightly cliché (an unfortunate element of DiPietro’s book), she fully commits to the gospel-infused song “Change Don’t Come Easy” and performs awe-inspiring vocal riffs much to the audience’s delight. Rhett George (Gator) also has a standout vocal moment in the Act 1 closer, “Say a Prayer.” Quentin Earl Darrington (last seen as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the Kennedy Center production of Ragtime) gives a fine performance as Felicia’s protective brother, Delray, and displays impeccable vocals in “Change Don’t Come Easy” and “Stand Up.”
The ensemble cast members also deserve special mention. They perform Sergio Trujillo’s spirited, athletic, and modern choreography with reckless abandonment and offer their rich voices to the toe-tapping inducing group numbers. Their enthusiasm in such numbers as “Steal Your Rock and Roll” is infectious.
The production values are also first rate and complement the performances. David Gallo’s scenic design is noteworthy for its complex moving parts and interesting use of video screens. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are time-period and character-appropriate. His costume choices for Huey reflect his off-beat personality while Felicia’s costumes highlight her simple and classic beauty. Howell Binkley’s lighting design contributes well to the intoxicating high-energy flavor of the production. The 9-piece orchestra skillfully plays Daryl Waters and David Bryan’s Tony Award-winning orchestrations with vigor and pizazz.
The underlying message of the play, though oft heard, is certainly not one that should be lost on contemporary American society still plagued by racism. The cast presents this message beautifully as it gives emotion-filled performances. It is simply one of the finest casts I’ve seen in national tours in recent years. For that reason alone, Memphis is sure to be an audience pleaser.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.
Memphis plays through July 1, 2012 at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House, 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-467-4600, 0r 800-444-1324, or purchase them online.