Theatre Mirror Reviews -"Memphis"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth

heats up Boston

Reviewed by Sheila Barth

Ten years ago, when I attended North Shore Music Theatre’s world premiere of “Memphis” and the red carpet party afterward at Finz in Salem, I knew David Bryan and Joe DiPietro’s musical was going places - definitely to Broadway, if not national and international venues. Bryan’s band buddy, Jon Bon Jovi, along with several other celebrities and critics, enthusiastically congratulated the euphoric Bryan. The show was so explosively moving in the round, it was easy to envision it with a large song-and-dance ensemble, reeling, rocking and rolling on a large, presidium stage.

The 2010 four-time Tony Award winning musical,which also earned Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards, swept Broadway 2009-2012, and continues to captivate audiences.The national touring company, which rocked the rafters of the Citi Performing Arts Center Emerson Colonial Theatre, Dec. 11-23, hasn’t lost any steam, either.

Under Christopher Ashley’s slick direction, Sergio Trujillo’s award-winning, groovy choreography, David Gallo’s authentic-looking sets of grimy radio and TV stations, Beale Street nightclubs, and his projection designs, “Memphis” hearkens back to an era in musical and societal history we’d rather forget, because of racial injustice. 

Howard Binkley’s dramatic lighting changes and Ken Travis‘ booming sound design capture Music Director-Conductor Darryl Archibald and orchestra’s swinging sounds.   

Loosely based on Memphis groundbreaking disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first to play both black and white musical performers’ records on his radio show in the 1950s, “Memphis” tells the story of Huey Calhoun, who frequents underground black music-dance clubs, telling owners and patrons their music moves his soul. Huey’s moving up from stock boy in a department store to record salesman, then through the airwave ranks, to the bigtime stations, despite owners’ trepidation, is soothed by audiences’ overwhelming response to his wild, erratic, bombastic personality.

While prowling “Negro” clubs, Huey discovers a gorgeous singer and promises to get her on his radio station. He also has fallen in love with her, a dangerous, forbidden inter-racial situation, with devastating results in non-integrated Memphis.

Beautiful Felicia Boswell as Huey’s musical and romantic find, Felicia, is superb, her powerful voice sublime throughout, but she especially shines in “Colored Woman”.  

When Boswell and co-star Bryan Fenkart as Huey team up for duets in “The Music of My Soul,” “Ain’t Nothin’ But A Kiss,” “Love Will Stand,” coupled with a reprise of “Ain’t Nothin‘ But A Kiss” as their parting song, they’re sensational.

So are Horace V. Rogers as Felicia’s protective older brother, Delray; Will Mann as Bobby, broom-pushing janitor-turned-overnight singing sensation; Rhett George as silent, traumatized Gator, who as a child watched white men lynch his father; and Julie Johnson portraying Huey’s prejudiced mother, who undergoes an epiphany after attending a Black church and integrating herself with her son’s TV performers. The music and message in “Memphis” resonate loud and clearly, touching not only Huey’s soul, but theatergoers’ who experienced the 1950’s rock ‘n‘ roll breakthrough and grateful younger folk who’ve inherited it.

"Memphis" (11 - 23 December)
The Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street, BOSTON MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide