Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Memphis: The Musical

Fresh from Broadway is the first National Tour of Memphis, which recently made a brief stop in Toronto (so technically it's a North American tour).  The story takes place in the 1950's during a time when radio was one more segregated element in the southern USA.   I had no idea that "race music" stations were relegated to the edges of the band, typically where the signal was not as high a quality.  Mainstream stations may have had a rhythm and blues program, but based on how the musical pokes fun at this program on a white station, they were essentially a joke; not really playing black music.

In the musical, a guy named Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), who likes black music ends up in the wrong area of town at a black nightclub.  He convinces them he likes their music, and isn't interested in anything other than promoting it, well except for Felicia (Felicia Boswell).  She's a black singer, and sister of night club owner Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington), with whom Huey falls in love.  His promise of getting her singing in the centre of the radio dial is the driving force of the first act.  The sudden expansion of black music, now being called rock and roll, onto radio, TV, and the aftermath of the Huey/Felicia relationship is the subject of Act 2.

Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart
The story line is lively, intense, thought provoking, tender and touching all at the same time.  We see the change in characters preconceived notions about people, (namely Huey's mother played by Happy McPartlin), who are different and a younger generation that embraces the music and change.  It's sad to think that all this happened barely a generation ago.  Things don't get as far as a lynching but there's intense opposition to Huey and Felicia being together.

Unfortunately, there isn't a fairy tale ending.  Felicia's story has a happier finale than Huey's as she makes a career as a singer in New York.   By trying to force too much, too fast change wise in Memphis Huey ends up losing all the progress he made professionally.  Although I like to think he gets back on the right track at the end with a little help from old friends.
Huey and cast in final scene
The music follows the same mix of emotions.  The score (musical as well) won a Tony award in 2010 and is by founding member of Bon Jovi, David Bryan.  I particularly liked the upbeat "Everyone Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night", Felicia's heartfelt "Coloured Woman", and the song that eventually makes it on the radio in the centre of the dial "Someday".  Maybe I was just in an overly sappy mood, but "Memphis Lives in Me" brought tears to my eyes as everything Huey had falls apart.  There wasn't a member of the cast who left you feeling let down with their voice or performance.  They are all top notch talents.
Felicia singing live on the radio
(photo by Joan Marcus)
The show has now left Toronto, but should it make a return appearance and you're looking for a mix of catchy music and story with heart, check out Memphis.

No comments:

Post a Comment