Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
From “Show Boat” to “South Pacific” to “West Side Story,” the theme of racial prejudice has run through some of Broadway’s most beloved musicals.
What primarily sets “Memphis” apart from them is that the music itself – and not just the plotline or song lyrics – hammers home the theme. Rhythm ‘n’ blues was “race music” until white teenagers began to embrace it in the 1950s, and that’s a central focal point here.
Penned by David Bryan (of Bon Jovi), the music of “Memphis” credibly simulates a fairly wide range of vintage rhythm ‘n’ blues, gospel and blues, although it never quite locks into the distinctive Memphis soul stew sound. “Someday,” for example, is pretty much a bouncy, straight-up Motown ditty that could have been a hit for Diana Ross & the Supremes.
No matter. The songs are catchy, and Felicia Boswell (as Felicia) delivers a gloriously powerhouse performance whenever she opens her mouth to sing. And make no mistake, this gal can sang.
The storyline follows Huey Calhoun (portrayed by Bryan Fenkart with expert comic timing), a white, motor-mouthed high school dropout who slips into a black basement nightclub on Beale Street one night, seduced by the rumbling, rollicking sound of Felicia’s voice and the soul-churning music she’s singing.
“It’s the music of my soul, baby!” he declares.
Calhoun lands a job as a DJ, spinning black music on an all-white radio station. White teenagers love the music; Calhoun’s radio show is a smash hit; and his success continues as he hosts lands a dance-party show on television, too.
He’s the number one cheerleader for singer Felicia, whose star also rises. Along the way, well, you guessed it – an interracial romance blossoms, set against the backdrop of bigotry. Yes, it’s all rather predictable…
And no, there’s not much grit or depth to “Memphis,” and despite the title of Calhoun’s mama’s (Julie Johnson) big Act II spotlight number, “Change Don’t Come Easy,” Joe DiPietro’s book makes it seem as though generations of prejudice can be washed away with just a few well-placed, seductive songs.
But the music and the high-energy dancing (snappy choreography by Sergio Trujillio) are the main attractions here, and they’re bolstered by bright, boldly colored costumes (Paul Tazewell).
Fortunately, the cast is solid throughout. Director Christopher Ashley has coaxed strong performances from the actors in all of the supporting roles, and the ensemble brings plenty of sizzle ‘n’ twitch to the big dance numbers.
“Memphis” continues its run at Proctors in Schenectady with performances at 8pm tonight (Wednesday) through Saturday (April 21), in addition to 2pm matinees on Thursday (April 19), Saturday (April 21) and Sunday (April 22). Tix are $20, $35, $45, $50, $60 & $70.
Bob Goepfert’s review at The Troy Record
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
Richard DiMaggio’s review at Did You Weekend
Excerpt from Paul Lamar’s review at The Daily Gazette: “This company is spectacular, not only in their singing and dancing but in the fine-tuning of their acting. Under Christopher Ashley’s direction, they shift effortlessly from big, stylized gestures to the humor or pathos of an intimate moment. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography keeps the joint jumpin’, and Alvin Hough Jr. leads an onstage band that serves up the blues, R&B and gospel as hot as can be. Favorite spots? ‘Change Don’t Come Easy,’ where Johnson’s pipes bring down the house; ‘Say a Prayer,’ featuring Rhett George (sweet and amusing elsewhere) that closes Act 1; ‘Big Love,’ a home run by Will Mann; Darrington, everywhere. Boswell & Fenkart, Fenkart & Boswell. Can’t have one without the other. You sit stock still when she sings ‘Colored Woman’ and ‘Someday,’ and you can’t sit still when he twitches across the stage on ‘Hello, My Name Is Huey’ and ‘Tear Down the House.'”