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Thursday, April 4, 2013

High Energy “Memphis” Takes on Turbulent Time in American History


Felicia Boswell as Felicia Farrell and the
national tour of Memphis. Photo – Paul Kolnik.


Memphis

Directed by Christopher Ashley
Music by David Bryan
Lyrics by David Bryan & Joe DiPietro
Book by Joe DiPietro

Reviewed by Kathi E. B. Ellis

Entire contents copyright © 2013 by Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved.

There’s something satisfying about a tribute to an art form through the lens of a city – brought to a city that itself has deep roots in music. And on Tuesday evening the musical love letter to Memphis opened at The Kentucky Center for the Arts here in Louisville, which has a long love affair with jazz. Memphis takes on the turbulent years of the 1950s in terms of music, race and the media.

There is much to like in this high-energy, polished national tour of the 2010 Tony Award winning musical. It’s certainly the most accomplished of the Broadway Louisville productions I’ve seen this season. On a side note, it’s worth pondering if there is an unconscious visual theme that guided show selection: Flashdance featured Pittsburgh’s bridges prominently in its design; Memphis bridges were also on display this week; and in West Side Story (up next) set on an island, the pivotal scene takes place under an overpass.

Another connection among this season’s shows is the choreography of Sergio Trujillo – featured in Flashdance, which he also directed. His work will also return in next season’s The Addams Family (which I recently saw in Lexington). Of these three productions, his choreography in Memphis is by far the most sparkling and exuberant. Maybe that says something about the difference in dance forms in the 1950s and the 1980s. And this ensemble brings precision and élan to every dance form we see in the production, including the energetic jump rope sequence during a street scene in which white and black kids are fine together – when they’re listening to and playing to the music.

Herein lies the uneasy tension that’s part of this script. At too many times in the story the music solves the problem, personal or societal, facing the characters. Historically, music did help weaken race barriers; and it did take white DJs, among others, to play “race music” on the airwaves to bring white audiences to black music. But a well-placed song was not sufficient to solve the tensions between the races or the generations. In this respect, the script is too simplistic (though more effective than Hairspray which traverses similar terrain). The story succeeds best when we see that it is the money that makes the difference: the radio station owner (William Parry) giving Huey the three-year contract because he’s number one in the ratings; the NY producer (Christopher Gurr) insisting on replacing the black dancers with white dancers in order to get national viewership. Nonetheless, many of the songs drive the story forward, rather than being window dressing, making Memphis a powerful, more traditional, book musical.

This is a top-notch cast who, for the most part, overcome the sketched-in handling of the complex nuances of this period in our country’s history. Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell play, respectively, Huey Calhoun, the geeky dropout who loves black music, and Felicia the club singer with big dreams. Mr. Fenkart’s nervous energy and lanky frame encapsulate Huey’s awkwardness and passion. Ms. Boswell commands the stage every time she sings – as songstress and when it’s a character-driven number. Together they make their underwritten romance believable. Felicia’s brother Delray, Horace V. Rogers, brings a weighty dignity to his role of nightclub owner and protector; “She’s My Sister” is elegant in its power and simplicity. The long-silent Gator, Rhett George, lets loose in one of those well-placed songs, which is nevertheless poignant and powerful. At this performance, understudy Kent Overshown played Bobby, creating an exuberant and likeable character willing to give this crazy white guy a chance. Huey’s Mama, Tami Dahbura, is an unevenly written character. In the earlier scenes, she’s a cartoonish bigot (who nonetheless gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening) becoming a pragmatist who recognizes that her son will do what he wants, and who, somewhat unbelievably, visits a black church by herself and is swept up by the music – well-placed song anyone? – reliving it in the foot-stomping Gospel-inspired “Change Don’t Come Easy.” The Be Black Trio of Darius Barnes, Tyrone A. Jackson and Jarvis D. Mckinley fluidly morph between music styles as the decade progresses.

The conventions of night club, radio station and TV studio are convincingly and efficiently created by scenic designer David Gallo, with Howell Binkley’s evocative lighting design enhancing both locations and the emotional arc of the characters’ journeys. Paul Tazewell’s costumes help the audience move through the years, evoking the changing styles of the period. These elements, together with the performers’ commitment to the music and movement, carry Memphis beyond the book’s drawbacks.

Memphis

April 2 - 8, 2013

PNC Broadway in Louisville
The Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
502-584-7777

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