Joe DiPietro wrote the book and David Bryan composed music and lyrics for Memphis which received four 2010 Tony Awards. A young white man who did not complete high school, Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) finds his way to a Beale Street club and is taken with the music he hears. He happens to be working at a local department store. Before we know it, Huey loses his job but claims another as a DJ. His calling, during these days and nights during the 1950s, is to bring rhythm and blues to a large audience. Huey might be seen as a prototypical country hick but his passion for popular sounds kicks in. Additionally, he and a charming black singer, Felicia (Felicia Boswell) fall for one another. But this is the 1950s in Memphis and we all know what that meant in terms of race relations.
Boswell scores on one tune after another: two first act highlights include "Colored Woman" and "Someday." Fenkart's singing voice is fine but his strength is his versatility and ability to grab his character at the outset and maintain energy throughout. Boswell shines, with Fenkart, on "Love Will Stand" near the close of the second act. The lead man and woman were understudies for Memphis on Broadway and both are high caliber performers who are well rehearsed and filled with energy and understanding of their respective roles.
Christopher Ashley's direction is strong and complete. No one misses a mark. The supportive actors, too, are excellent. Rhett George, playing Gator, is sweet with his solo in "Say a Prayer" as the first act concludes. Will Mann, playing Bobby, is a large man with some fine moves and nimble feet; his rendition of "Big Love" is smashing. Julie Johnson (Mama/Gladys) has a huge, compelling voice.
If Memphis is truly distinctive, it is through Sergio Trujillo's oftentimes stunning choreography. This is one acrobatic and physically demanding (of its actors) show. By my count, the company appears fourteen times and is asked to push the tempo. Mission, in this case, accomplished! Trujillo's work is on Broadway now (Memphis and Jersey Boys). He supplies much of the charge for touring Memphis.
The plot is fairly predictable and, yes, this is a tad clichéd. The question is: can a musical, with a recognizable story line, transcend its seeming limitations? Memphis is a commendable show, one which meets the usual criteria. Huey and Felicia have feelings for one another. The plot and subplot, if obvious, are in order. A romance does develop. David Bryan's lyrics are appropriate and DiPietro's book is suitable. The piece is all based upon George W. George's concept. This, too: the on-stage musicians are both important and exemplary. Musical nods, then, to Christopher Jahnke for supervising and to Michael Keller for his coordination. The musical director is Alvin Hough, Jr. and orchestrations by Daryl Waters and David Bryan. Memphis flies when the gymnastic actors, maximizing Trujillo's choreography and August Eriksmoen's dance arrangements, are in perpetual motion. These are cherished moments.
Memphisplays The Bushnell in Hartford through January 15th. For ticket information, call (860) 987-5900 or visit www.bushnell.org. For more information on the tour, please visit www.memphisthemusical.com.
- Fred Sokol