I was a little apprehensive about walking into The Opera House to see a new cast and production of a musical I have loved since I first saw it in NYC, but let me put the doubts to rest for all other Memphis fans – this cast rocks! It’s like I saw the show for the first time and it’s love at first sight all over again!
There is so much energy coming from the stage from the first dance move in the jumpin’ opening number “Underground” to the final “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It’s infectious!
The winner of four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Memphis takes you to the segregated underground clubs of Memphis in the 50s where we meet the very assertive DJ Huey Calhoun (the energetic Bryan Fenkart). Huey is going nowhere – he loses job after job, he never gets his high school diploma, and, basically, he’s a mess. But when he meets a beautiful Black singer – Felicia – played by the incredible Felicia Boswell, and when he hears her sing – he’s smitten with her voice and her looks. Unfortunately, when he gets too close to her, all hell breaks loose with her over-protective brother, Delray (who owns the nightclub), played by soul-stirring Quentin Earl Darrington.
Darrington mesmerized audiences at The Kennedy Center and in NYC when he played Coalhouse Walker in the recent critically acclaimed production of Ragtime. And here, the audience was impressed once again when he sang the emotionally wrenching duet “She’s My Sister” with Fenkart.
Look, I don’t want to give it all away, but suffice to say that Memphis is not only entertaining, but it has a powerful message, and reminds us of a time in our country’s history that many of us would rather forget.
Director Christopher Ashley keeps the story moving at a fast pace while Choreographer Sergio Trujillo has created some of the most acrobatic, exciting and jaw-dropping choreography ever seen on the stage, and he is fortunate to have a cast of incredibly flexible and athletic dancers who pull it off. All through the performance the audience applauded the efforts of the hard-working dancers, and there were lot of screams and wild applauding after the dancers finished their high flying choreography for the song “Radio.”
Costume Designer Paul Tazewell has created five gorgeous dresses for Boswell, including a stunning sexy red dress and a mauve ensemble that glitters with rhinestones. The scenic design by David Gallo, who also is the Co-Projections Designer with Shawn Sagady, utilizes a two-tier set and projections that show Huey’s television shows in black and white. It’s effective in telling the story and putting the audience right there in the 50s and in the studio.
There is so much great vocal talent on the stage that I thought the roof was going to fall down. And the cast is fortunate enough to be singing David Bryan’s (of Bon Jovi fame)rock-filled, soul-filled. blues-filled, gospell-filled, and ballad-filled Tony Award-winning score. The 10-member Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Alvin Hough, Jr., rocked The Eisenhower Theater with their fabulous playing.
Fenkart and Boswell have so much chemistry on the stage – they are on fire! Their scenes together are filled with passion and ‘heat’ and when they sing – it’s from the depths of their souls. Their first duet “The Music of My Soul’ is filled with wonderful harmonies. Boswell sings the heck out of “Colored Woman” and “Someday” while Fenkart’s renditions of ‘The Music of My Soul,’ “Tear Down This House,” and the show-ending “Memphis Lives in Me” are not only soulful but heartfelt.
Huey is an ‘odd one’ and if overplayed the character can really get under your skin quickly, but Fenkart grabs the audience right away and never lets go, and you like him. How can you not admire a guy who goes against all the odds to stand up for what he believes is right and fights for the woman he loves? There’s also a lot of humor in his role and Fenkart nails all the jokes with impeccable comic timing.
Special kudos to Julie Johnson who plays Huey’s mother and whose rendition of “Change Don’t Come Easy” made the audience go crazy! She single-handedly steals the show.
Memphis has a great love story, a hummable and beautiful score, and tons of energetic choreography. So don’t touch that dial – and get over to The Kennedy Center and let Memphis move the music in your soul. It’s a WOW!!
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Bios of the National Cast.