Though the weather in Cincinnati this week is frightfully cold, theatergoers can warm themselves in the heat created on stage by the national tour of the musical Memphis. With a solid score, intriguing story and characters, high octane choreography, and a talented cast, Memphis is the cure for the winter blues and freezing temperatures.
Memphis tells the story of Huey Calhoun, a white man in 1950s Memphis, who loves African-American rhythm and blues and rock-n-roll. Though uneducated and a loser thus far in life, his affection for this music and the people who create it propels him to great things. Huey first integrates himself into the black music scene by visiting Delray's, a club where he's the only white patron, and befriending the people there. Then, he gets a job as a DJ and exposes the entire city to the sounds he adores. He eventually has his own TV program, similar to Dick Clark's, but with African-American dancers and music. Along the way, Huey falls hard for Felicia, a black singer, and the pair faces numerous challenges to their artistic success and relationship as a couple.
The book for the show by Joe DiPietro skillfully combines historical references, conflict, romance, and humor to create complex characters and a story which conveys significant issues of that part of American history. The stark reality of the racism of the time and the actions by the characters to overcome it to achieve their dreams is effectively presented. Though certain elements seem somewhat formulaic, the show still has a few surprises and characters that an audience roots for as they maintain their values and dreams despite the obstacles in their way.
The score features catchy and period-appropriate music by David Bryan and sufficient lyrics by both Bryan and DiPietro. Mr. Bryan is best known as the keyboardist for the band Bon Jovi, but his contribution here demonstrates a more varied and melodic talent well-suited for theater. The show's songs include gospel, R&B, rock, and traditional musical theater tunes. The best songs are the plaintive "Someday," the fiery "She's My Sister," and the show's last two numbers, "Memphis Lives in Me" and "Steal Your Rock 'n' Rock," and the score overall is extremely solid.
As Huey, Bryan Fenkart provides a naturalistic embodiment of the quirky dreamer. He captures the odd but endearing uniqueness of the character, sings excellently, and conveys both the passion and the comedy of the role well. Felicia Boswell is an intense and tough Felicia, and sings with power and emotion. The show is in great hands with these two lead performers.
Some wonderful supporting performances are turned in as well. Horace V. Rogers (Delray, Felicia's protective brother) is an impressive singer as shown in "Underground" and "She's My Sister," as is Rhett George as Gator, as demonstrated in the lovely "Say A Prayer". Will Mann is endearing as Bobby, and Broadway vet William Parry is steady and strong as Huey's boss Mr. Simmons. Julie Johnson, as Huey's mother Gladys, brings the house down with her vocally demanding and remarkable performance of "Change Don't Come Easy". The entire cast shows off first-rate dance skills and singing throughout.
Director Christopher Ashley provides a brisk pace, the appropriate tone, and smooth transitions. As he did with the last musical to stop in Cincinnati, Jersey Boys, choreographer Sergio Trujillo supplies active and athletic dances which capture the flavor of the period and theatrical flair. Daryl Archibald leads a talented nine-piece band.
The set design by David Gallo captures the grittiness of the various Memphis locales and is well integrated into the story. Howell Binkley's lighting is appropriate throughout and has several standout effects, including simulating the spinning of a 45 record in large scale. The costumes by Paul Tazewell are fun and attractive, though the dresses in the finale aren't the most flattering. The sound design by Ken Travis was somewhat muddled in spots, rendering a number of the lyrics as unintelligible.
Though it was an admittedly weak year on Broadway, Memphis won the 2010 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score, and the material is solid and praiseworthy. Likewise deserving kudos are the performers, who heat the stage up with enormous energy and talent.
Memphis continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through February 3, 2013. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816. For more information on the tour, please visit memphisthemusical.com.