Memphis | 05.01.12

play memphis_75I don’t know where to start with the praise.

 

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis

play memphis_500

What a night! I may have gotten as much out of going to Memphis as Paul Simon did. Well, not the money and the gold records, but you know what I mean. There’s a bit of a stumble to the end, but this show is still close enough to perfect for me.

Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) enters a basement Beale Street bar one night in “the 1950s” (per the playbill), drawn in by the joyful noises he hears emanating from below. Delray Farrell (Quentin Earl Darrington) opens the show with the impressive “Underground,” and shows us this cast can surely sing. They immediately reinforce that impression with spirited renditions of several high-energy numbers when Huey stumbles in. He is shunned at first, and patrons think he might even be a cop, so they start to leave. He wins them over, at least to some extent (“Hello, My Name is Huey”), though Delray remains distant. He has established the club with a purpose: to provide a showcase in which his talented sister, Felicia (Felicia Boswell), can perform. Hers is one of the voices Huey hears and immediately calls it “the music of my soul,” echoing the title of the second song in the show. Delray believes it is, indeed “soul music,” but that it also represents the battered soul of black folk who have earned the right to sing the blues through deep and ongoing misery in a white society which, even after it no longer enslaves them, still keeps them down.

Felicia is more open-minded than her brother, and she takes to Huey, who promises to get her on the radio. Huey is a real goofball, but through a series of unlikely machinations, he actually makes this happen, and “right in the middle of the AM dial,” too. Prior to finding the music and bullying his way into a deejay’s job, he has managed to be a failure at everything he’s tried and is still under the thumb of his overbearing, bigoted mother who supports herself and her son (barely) by working in a diner. By attending a black church and seeing the joy therein—along with the grace of his black friends, Bobby (Will Mann), the station janitor, and Gator (Rhett George), and his growing relationship with Felicia, Huey finds joy and the life he was meant to have. When the music breaks through (“Everybody Wants to Be Black on Saturday Night”) and white kids start buying “race music” records, Huey proves his instincts are good.

I don’t know where to start with the praise. First, there’s Fenkart, of course, the goofy, loveable nerd who is the heart of Memphis. He is the Ur-fanboy: There is the music and the music is around him, in him, and where he has his being. He does seem a bit overly naïve in thinking that, in his time and place, there could be a future for him and Felicia (“Ain’t Nothin’ But a Kiss”); after all, even Tony and Maria were planning to move away. Huey is from and of Memphis; Felicia’s dream is to go to New York, so much of what happens here is the fallout from their differing ambitions. A racially motivated incident causes her to become even more determined to get on up and get away.

Radio station owner Mr. Simmons (William Parry) doesn’t understand the music or Huey, especially his trademark cry, “Hockadoo,” but he knows Huey is making money so he gives him a contract. Huey is in hog heaven, of course. He hasn’t gotten to the middle of that dial without incident (“Say a Prayer”), but he did move on up. By Act II, Huey has worked his way into an American Bandstand-kind of TV show with his own weird self as host (“Crazy Little Huey”) and a bunch of black kids dancing their hearts out. White kids aren’t just buying the music now; they’re copping the moves. Of course, parents are upset, but that’s part of the point.

Huey has hit a snag in his personal life, but his mother is beginning to come around. She’s taken his advice to visit a black church, and she informs him that “Black people can sing like white people can’t.” She immediately contradicts her own statement by belting out “Change Don’t Come Easy,” a full-throated gospel number with Delray, Gator, and Bobby as backup. Julie Johnson is a delightful surprise in the role, and she truly does rock the house. But then so does everybody. What can I say about a show in which at least half the songs are the “11 o’clock number”?

My only complaint with the book, which is remarkably strong for an old-fashioned “stop talking and sing” musical, is that it runs out of steam at the end. It is based on a real-life deejay who even competed with Dick Clark to host an afternoon music show in the 1950s, and is used in the show as part of the plot. But once things go downhill, it’s hard to get back up, so that the joyous anthem that closes Memphis seems unmotivated. But that is such a minor complaint in the great scheme of things. Christopher Ashley’s direction and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography are impeccable. The 10-piece band under the direction of keyboardist Alvin Hough, Jr., is stationed at the back of the stage. The group is almost a character in itself, even though we can’t see all of them all the time, and provides stellar accompaniment.

Memphis was recognized in 2010 with multiple Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score (David Bryan—founding keyboardist of Bon Jovi—and Joe DiPietro), Best Book (DiPietro), and Orchestrations (Bryan and Daryl Waters). It also received Drama Desk Awards and critical accolades. The team defines versatility. The story is solid and meaningful with joy and sadness in equal measure, with the underlying rage the situation demands. The soulful sound and evocative lyrics enhance and advance the plot. The set, lights, sound, and costumes are glorious (credit David Gallo, Howell Binkley, Ken Travis, and Paul Tazewell, respectively, another group that is no stranger to awards).

One of my favorite numbers, “Make Me Stronger,” is performed at a Sunday service by a gospel choir with Felicia in front. From the gold robes to the soaring voices to the energetic praise dance, the spirit soars, and we do understand the concept of “soul music,” just like Huey said we would. At this place, at this moment, Memphis is itself “Graceland.” I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a musical more, and I hope you won’t miss it. Hockadoo! | Andrea Braun

Memphis runs through May 13 at the Fox. For information, visit www.fabulousfox.com.

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