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Chicago by John Olson

Memphis
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's review of West Side Story

Memphis
Felicia Boswell, Quentin Earl Darrington,
Will Mann and Bryan Fenkart

Full disclosure—last year I worked on marketing for the Chicago premiere of a play by Memphis's lyricist/bookwriter Joe DiPietro and our show opened less than two weeks after Memphis won the Tony award for best musical, book and score. The heightened interest in DiPietro's work in the wake of that win made our marketing job easier and DiPietro's involvement in our production only added to the good will I felt toward Memphis. With full recognition that my assessment may be considered suspect, I'll nonetheless take the position that this is a very good musical—and a very good road company touring it.

It's a rare musical that focuses on the journey of a male character—and Memphis's Huey Calhoun is a true original. Loosely based on the real-life Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, Huey is an outsider, a bit of a loser, who becomes briefly successful as a DJ by following his instincts. He seizes the opportunity to promote African-American rhythm and blues based on apparently no more than his own love for the music. He becomes a successful DJ and music promoter, but there's no calculation, no opportunism in his actions—just his childlike instincts to say and do exactly what his gut tells him. As the story develops, that's his downfall as well. His devotion to the black singer Felicia Farrell and refusal to remake himself to suit the "suits" of the music industry are his undoing. The formulas behind commercial musical theater writing typically call for the protagonist to succeed in their journey: Memphis has the guts to give us one that fails, at least outwardly. His success is internal—in remaining true to himself and his values. That's a quiet victory at best, but it's even questionable if Huey had any choice, but is caught in his own genuineness. As he sings in "Memphis Lives in Me," he can't even bring himself to consider leaving the hometown that gave him his break, but is now holding him back.

Huey is matched with a female lead who has her own special brand of toughness. Felicia is firmly committed to pursuing her music career and, while she appears to come to love the odd Huey, she has a pragmatism and selfishness that prevents them from having a typically romantic musical theater relationship. These two are no Tony and Maria. We know people like them. Huey and Felicia have special talents, but are at heart, rather ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times as racial segregation starts to crumble in post-World War II America.

Beyond the story of these two fascinating yet believable people and the historical context of 1950s race relations, is an infectiously entertaining musical. The score of 21 R&B songs by DiPietro and composer David Bryan are mostly performed as numbers from concerts or recording sessions, with lots of flashy choreography by Sergio Trujillo, all enhanced by the lighting design of Howell Binkley that establishes the artificially lit milieus of nightclubs, and TV and recording studios. David Gallo's sets are simple and realistic, with a touch of the whimsical (there's a giant radio dial in some scenes).

Succeeding Broadway's Chad Kimball and Montego Glover in the roles of Huey and Felicia are Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell, their former understudies. Fenkart has toned down Kimball's mannerisms slightly, losing some of Kimball's manic energy but gaining some realism and believability. Boswell is a sensational songstress and actor, giving her character every bit of the strength the script calls for. There's strong support as well from Quentin Earl Darrington, the Coalhouse Walker of the recent Broadway revival of Ragtime, as Delray. The golden-voiced Darrington brings down the house with his solos, while Julie Johnson is a riot as Huey's mom, and it's surprising that she doesn't have a lot of Broadway credits. William Parry, known for originating roles in Sondheim's Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George, Passion and Road Show, brings a grounded comic relief to the radio station owner Simmons. The ensemble is entirely top-notch, executing Trujillo's dances with flash and flair.

Sure, in its recording industry milieu (and its Sergio Trujillo dances), Memphis has some similarities to Jersey Boys (which was actually first performed publicly a year after Memphis, even though Jersey Boys made it to Broadway four years sooner). Memphis also has some commonality with Hairspray in its R&B score (though Hairspray's score is more eclectic) and in its concern with race relations (which in Hairspray is a more idealized view than Memphis's). If anything, it owes a debt to Dreamgirls, though Memphis is grittier in its setting and depiction of violence. It may not have forged new ground in musical theater, but it's one of the very few wholly original musicals (with its book, music, and lyrics not based on previous material) to succeed on Broadway. It not only gives audiences a look at a very specific and significant time and place in U.S. history and a pair of characters worth exploring, but in the hands of director Christopher Ashley, Trujillo, and this terrific tour cast, an enormously entertaining musical.

Memphis will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago, through December 4, 2011. For ticket information, visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com call Ticketmaster at 800-775-2000 or visit any of the Broadway in Chicago box offices. For more information on the tour, visit www.memphisthemusical.com.


Photo: Paul Kolnik

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-- John Olson



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