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VOL. 126 | NO. 203 | Tuesday, October 18, 2011

City Pride

‘Memphis’ kicks off 80-week tour in namesake home


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“Memphis,” the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, took New York by storm where it started a successful run two years ago.

Felicia Boswell plays Felicia during a rehearsal for the 2010 Tony award-winning Best Musical “Memphis,” which is kicking off a national tour in Memphis this week. 
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

In Memphis, the popular musical’s namesake city where this weekend at the Orpheum Theatre it kicked off an 80-week tour, it may have to work a little harder to resonate with audiences.

While delivering big-time on show-stopping music, dance and drama, the complexities of life and race relations in 1950s Memphis were largely glossed over.

“What if we could get out of Memphis?” asks Felicia Farrell, the African-American female lead in “Memphis,” after finally getting to sing her music in the middle of the white radio dial and finding success there with the help of a white, visionary goofball named Huey Calhoun, a character loosely based on Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips.

It was one of the moments when the story of “Memphis” really touched the identity of its hometown audience. After all, everyone in Memphis knows someone who has asked the same question when frustrated by the state of racial politics.

It’s the realization that the one all-consuming issue really can disrupt the formation of dreams, which is precisely what happens in “Memphis.”

Farrell, played by Felicia Boswell, is suddenly challenged and changed when Calhoun, played by Bryan Fenkart, stumbles awkwardly into her brother Delray’s basement club on Beale Street back when white people knew better than to go there.

Calhoun, a barely-literate ninth grade dropout and natural-born rebel with a scant employment record, has some explaining to do, but promises to get Felicia on the radio, an offer she can’t help but hope for. Five minutes later he asks her out and hell breaks loose on both sides of the race card.

Boswell has the right combination of vocal range, style and power. Her pipes are stronger than a Harley’s and she jumps from crystal shattering heights to growling lows with the elegant turn of a heel.

Fenkart has no trouble delivering sincerity and believability as the good-hearted and slightly dopey Calhoun. Huey is the part of the story that makes audiences smile and forget that they are laughing at things they once did themselves – like listening to Perry Como, for instance.

Technical crew members work at The Orpheum during a rehearsal of “Memphis.” Tickets are still available for the show, which runs through Oct. 23.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

What Fenkart does have trouble with is a highly-stilted Southern accent – one of several in the musical – that at times sounds more like a Knoxville hillbilly than a Memphis redneck.

And that’s the first clue Joe DiPietro’s book was written by an out-of-towner. It’s the Stax era, but audiences don’t hear about Stax, nor anything about the old Delta river town and why it became the birthplace of legendary music.

There’s nothing about field hollers floating lazily upriver from Mississippi cotton fields and morphing into the blues. There’s nothing to express the personality of the city at all except that it is sharply divided along race lines.

Nor does the audience get any information about why Huey happens to be so very open-minded and able to overlook what seems natural in the society all around him. There’s a mention of him rebelling against his father, but nothing more, and that’s a big hole left in an otherwise charming and satisfying character.

In Act II the story focuses more on Calhoun and Farrell’s struggle within the music industry in Memphis and beyond and finally achieves the dramatic depth of a “Best Musical” Tony Award winner.

But if the tableau is a little patchy, David Bryan’s music and lyrics capture the spirit and sound of early Memphis rock ‘n’ roll perfectly in every song. There’s not a note in the entire show that fails to hit its mark. Applause for Fenkart’s solo “Memphis Lives in Me” held the show at a standstill for about three minutes on opening night.

The surprise success of the show, though, belongs to choreographer Sergio Trujillo and an ensemble of dancers who flawlessly executed dance after dance after dance. In a show about rock music, the dancing could have been all sock hops and hand jives with some gymnastics thrown in for good measure and it would have sold just as many tickets.

But the choreography was far more intricate. Even the foot-stomping, body-grinding R&B dances came with elegant extensions and body lines like moving sculptures in a museum of music. Though the score was as solid as it gets, Trujillo came very close to upstaging Bryan several times.

Another surprise hit performance was Julie Johnson as Calhoun’s tubby, hard-working, tell-it-like-it-is “Mama,” who changes more perhaps than any other character throughout the show.

Mama grows from a hard-hearted conformist who simply wants to stay out of trouble to a gospel-singing believer who takes a chance on herself and her upbringing and finds she can’t let the truth go unheard. She represents the best of what Memphis could become.

Quentin Earl Darrington, Rhett George and Will Mann playing Delray, the barman Gator, and radio station janitor Bobby, respectively, all brought truly beautiful baritone voices to an audience that couldn’t get enough of them.

So now “Memphis” begins an 80-week tour carrying the name if not the complete story of the city across the globe to audiences who probably associate it with Elvis Presley and nothing more.

On the one hand, some people will stop and say, “Great – now everyone in Tokyo thinks we talk like Huey.” On the other hand, there’s definitely a deep, passionate spirit about the show, which is something we can all be proud of.

“Memphis” runs through Oct. 23 at The Orpheum.

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