MEMPHIS’ Performers Explode at Academy of Music

by Jack Shaw

Members of the National Tour cast of MEMPHIS at the Kimmel Center. (Photo credit: Paul Kolnik)

Where these fantastic performers got the energy to keep it up for more than two hours of intense, driven, explosive musical numbers is amazing. Maybe it’s just me getting old. But it was the performers, the high energy, the intensity of the music production, lights, costumes that make the show the four-time Tony Award Winner it is. The key performers, the leads, were impeccable but the ensemble was equally strong and consistent. The cast worked every number to its zenith so that you will have a musical experience hard to compare to anything else.

While I have to say that the performers made this musical exuberant and uplifting at times, there were times the show was reminiscence of other musicals that told a similar stories like HAIRSPRAY.

MEMPHIS covers a “dark” period of race relations and the birth of rock and roll. Huey Calhoun is loosely based on a real DJ, Dewey Phillips who was one of the first DJs to play black music in the 1950s with a little of Alan Freed thrown in. The character meets Felicia, a beautiful and talented singer and puts her on the radio. They fall in love, a distinct no-no back then, and a big part of the drama here. I had a hard time believing a sophisticated girl like Felicia would be attracted to the hillbilly, no-account Huey anyway. But I think there was more drama than that to be had in Memphis at the time so by my reckoning there is a bigger flaw in the story-line.

Felicia Boswell (Felicia) & Bryan Fenkart (Huey) in the National Tour of MEMPHIS. (Photo credit: Paul Kolnik)

Dewey went downhill quickly at the end like Huey. In fact, Dewey died at 42. Sad but true. Real DJs like Freedman played the “game of payola” some and lost. MEMPHIS is advertised as the birth of Rock and Roll, but I seemed to miss that–when it actually happened. Maybe that’s because the story moves by hits and misses and maybe that’s the point. But MEMPHIS’ music is dramatic, more I think than the show’s storyline. It is still a show to see if only to experience the rich experience of that music. HAIR did a little more; it took us back and reminded us of who we thought we were and wanted to be. JERSEY BOYS took us back and gave us a story of how the Four Seasons became the Four Seasons and we left our chairs believing it–well, most of it.

The theme of music bringing whites and blacks together warranted the intense performing in the beginning, with rich voices and physical dance numbers, but after a while they turned to tentative celebration because there cannot be a real celebration the way this story ends. The finale was more a reunion of the dancers–at their best, of course, but still lacking a real ending. Of course we know it is a continuing struggle, or is it? I wanted an ending but found myself feeling like we should all go to the “Negro church for strength.” I don’t think that’s the way the play should end.

I found the musical story lacking in power. I like my stories so tied to the music that it stays with me and adds power to the music, but this was a typical musical to the end and I shouldn’t fault it for that. The acting was fine (exaggerated musical acting but quite good), the singers fantastic, the choreography by Sergio Trujillo was appropriately frenetic and creative and the musical numbers rich and full. The choreography could have used fewer folks on stage occasionally for variety, but that didn’t bother me too much since it added strength to the “struggle.”

So why do I feel I have this feeling we accomplished little.

Bryan Fenkart (Huey) and the National Touring Cast of MEMPHIS. (Photo credit: Paul Kolnik)

Perhaps I feel a little divided between phenomenal physical performance and other things that make musicals great. Critics of the Broadway show were also divided, but one thing they all allowed the show was its strengths of the individual performances and the intensity of the music. The unusual lighting reminded me of the light of God shining down in a church or cathedral on the people below as if expecting more of them, and the sound boomed loud enough to be resonating personally in the audience. Cheap trick or genius? You decide.

While I would have liked more story, this well dynamic performance couldn’t help what didn’t come with the script. However it needed something. I liked the characters, but had a little trouble believing the romance brewing between a much more sophisticated lady and hillbilly DJ. Some great laugh lines, some great subtle sight gags, and some still not so subtle.

High energy can make or break a show, but some times it needs to rise to be memorable besides. The rise of rock and roll, the period of rebellion–that whole period is rich in story in all it’s people, but that would make the play way too long. And so the story is Memphis. I love the line “Memphis with it streets paved with Blues.” Or, was it “Soul?” That would connect to the church. Atmosphere too late. Would have loved more.

An aside. I was DJ and as a DJ you often develop an interest in music you do not play at the station because you play so much of the same thing, and became a Rhythm and Blues/early Rock and Roll/Rockabilly fan off hours. I was actually hired as a DJ sight unseen by an all-black radio station in Kansas City. The station manager and I had a good laugh, realizing personal appearances would be a problem. That was late ’70s. Times had changed, but not enough.

Certainly see and feel MEMPHIS if you get the chance. I felt it was worth it despite some minor preferences of mine. The performances alone are worth the price of the ticket.

Book and Lyrics by Joe DePietro
Music and Lyrics by David Bryan
Directed by Christopher Ashley
January 17-22, 2012
Academy of Music
Broad and Locust Sts.
Philadelphia, PA

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