Coming to you live from the center of your radio dial – the most sensational show hot off Broadway to hit your Hippodrome Theatre stage – Broadway Across America presents Memphis! The winner of four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, this cultural revolution erupts on the stage with crazy levels of high energy and gets the whole audience to their feet. The show rolls in onto Beale Street – the underground clubs of the segregated 50’s giving us the perfect atmosphere for the show. We meet a young aspiring white DJ Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) who up to this point in his life can’t hold a job, didn’t finish school and has no potential for a future. That is until he tumbles into Delray’s nightclub and hears the music of his soul being sung from an electrifying voice. A voice belonging to a young black female singer, Felicia (Felicia Boswell). When his vision meets her voice the future of rock ‘n’ roll music will be changed forever. The heart-pounding beat and soul soaring songs will take you along the rock ‘n’ roll road of history; a journey you will never forget.
Director Christopher Ashley works alongside Choreographer Sergio Trujillo to make some of the most phenomenal song and dance numbers to sizzle on the stage. We see amazing feats of choreographic genius lead by Dance Captain Kyle Leland, showcasing a lot of acrobatic moves which involve swinging the women all around the stage. The ensemble provide eye-popping moves that really captures the essence of that new sound of the 50’s— the controversial rock ‘n’ roll moves with hip-popping and grinding during numbers like “Scratch My Itch” featuring Wailin’ Joe (Kent Overshown). Overshown channels the spirit of Lil’ Richie with his distinctive screaming vocals and wicked pelvic thrusts. There’s even a dance challenge during “Radio” where the whites and blacks show off their style in a friendly competition really utilizing those floor spins and high jumps. These dancers are intense and present their fierce talent with smooth execution and lively energy, making the audience want to get up and really move around.
And a beautiful voice is more than complimented with beautiful dresses throughout the show thanks to Tony Award nominated Costume Designer Paul Tazewell. Boswell changes dresses at least five times throughout the show and each one is more spectacular than the one before it. Tazewell creates stunning color combinations to outfit the rising young talent; a bright sexy red number when she’s recording a new song to show off her internal passion, and a smoky mauve ensemble studded with rhinestones with a racy split up to her hips for when she’s singing in the underground nightclub. The ensemble is fitted with time appropriate costumes that make dancing and fancy footwork that much easier, and really help get the audience into the mindset of the show.
This production is bursting at the seams with talent. There are so many powerful voices that they run the risk of bringing down the rafters every time they sing. The music and lyrics, provided by Tony Award Winner David Bryan, pump the stage full of hope and meaning, with a strong beat and thunderous rhythm that sing directly to your soul. We hear perfect three-part harmony during “Make Me Stronger” where the voices of Fenkart, Boswell, and Mama Gladys (Julie Johnson) come together with the gospel choir to shake the house with feeling. Julie Johnson then runs away with this soulful feeling in Act ii, during “Change Don’t Come Easy” where she starts belting out how things have to change and starts dancing with crazy moves the likes of which have never been seen by a middle-aged white mother. She joined by three forceful back-up singers in this number, Bobby (Will Mann) Gator (Rhett George) and Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington).
We hear the energy exuding in waves from Will Mann as Bobby – who doesn’t really sing outside of the men’s washroom, until he gets featured on the Calhoun Cavalcade. Mann steps up to the cameras and packs a punch with his solo “Big Love” grinning from ear to ear as he belts out this song packed full of feeling. He goes toe to toe with the expressive almost angelic voice of Rhett George who leads the ensemble in the Act I finale “Say A Prayer.” George’s character spends the first act in silence and when he finally speaks he does so with song, so moving and so filled with heartache and emotion that you want to cry.
And wrapping up this incredible trio is Quentin Earl Darrington. Playing the older brother of Felicia, he has a smooth attitude that fires to life when he thinks his baby sister is in trouble. An explosive duet with Fenkart led by Darrington hits the stage during “She’s My Sister.” Darrington uses his voice to express the trauma of his soul and how much she truly means to him with this song bringing the audience to tumultuous applause.
But the passion, the power, the driving force behind this show is split equally between Fenkart and Boswell. The two each bring heartfelt expressive voices to the table and sing from the depths of their being to inspire these songs with raw passion and hard emotion. Boswell has several numbers where her songs are coming from the center of her soul, belting out each note with hopeful desperation. “Colored Women” is the perfect example of her emotional struggle, her voice piercing the audience with the difficulties she experiences, the sorrows written on her face as she sings. As an actor she shares riveting moments of awkwardness with Boswell when they first meet and again when they decide that they might mean a little bit more to each other. The chemistry is electrifying and we see it first hand when they first sing together in “The Music of My Soul.” Their voices wrap around each other like fate forced them together and a moving soulful sound comes ringing through the audience.
Fenkart has the passion and the power to drive his dreams to reality. Ever the comic screw up with classic Memphis charm – he provides impeccable comic timing; delivering little one-liners with the perfect pause to really let his words impact the audience. He’s alive with a spastic energy that keeps the audience motivated toward his story and he really engages with the other actors on the stage, especially when he goes round and round with his Mama about being in love with a colored girl. Fenkart shines like a star burning bright in “Memphis Lives in Me,” importing every piece of his soul into this song. And the finale, “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll” has everyone jumping to their feet as Fenkart Boswell and the rest of the company share the joys and triumphs of the show one last time.
So don’t touch that dial – or you might just miss the best musical to bop through Baltimore in a very long time. Tell ‘em you heard it first on WRNB to get on down to the Hippodrome Theatre for this very limited engagement of Memphis. Hockadoo!
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Memphis plays through April 8, 2012 at Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 N. Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 343-3103, or purchase them online.
Watch a ‘sizzling’ video preview of The National Tour of Memphis.
Memphis opened its National Tour on October 16, 2011, at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis, TN. Watch highlights and listen as Bryan Fenkart (Huey Calhoun), sings “Memphis Lives in Me.”