The power of music to change hearts and minds is a common theme in musicals, but rarely has it been done better than in the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, “Memphis.”
“Memphis,” now playing at the Fox Theatre through May 13, is set in the titular city in the mid-1950s at the height of the segregation era.
The story centers on Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), a goofball redneck who ventures to the other side of the tracks, down to Beale Street seeking out the music of his soul- rhythm and blues.
Huey wanders into a club owned by Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington) whose beautiful and talented sister Felicia (the aptly-named and golden-voiced Felicia Boswell) is the headlining act.
At first, Huey’s presence causes some tension, what with him being the only white boy in the place and all, but his disarmingly manic personality puts everyone at ease and soon he is a club regular.
Wanting to share the music with the rest of the world, Huey lands a job as a local DJ through a combination of happenstance, dumb luck, and plot contrivance.
Quickly, Huey has the number-one radio show in Memphis, but complications arise as you would expect when white kids in the segregated South start listening to “race music.”
Complicating things even further, a romance begins to blossom between Huey and Felicia, which draws the concern of both Delray and Huey’s Mama (scene-stealer Julie Johnson) who fear for their safety in a state where mixed-race coupling was outlawed.
Racial tension runs throughout “Memphis” which thematically plays out like a harder-edged version of “Hairspray.” What breaks through all that tension is the music in what, from beginning to end, is one of the strongest collections of original songs to come off of Broadway in a while.
Covering everything from rhythm and blues, gospel and rock n’ roll; all the songs may be new, but they are filled with the DNA of Little Richard, The Coasters, and Etta James.
A problem a lot of musicals have is fully incorporating the songs into the story as, a couple of times a show, all of the action completely stops just to showcase a so-so song.
Not so with “Memphis,” which moves from song to song with a lot of energy and always makes sure something visually compelling is happening on the stage.
Vocally, the cast is stellar throughout with Boswell shining the brightest and most often. Fenkart deserves a lot of credit for the way he handles Huey, a character who, in lesser hands, could easily come across as frustratingly obnoxious.
The success of the show depends on Huey being earnestly likable while at the same time being a little dumb and a little misguided. Fenkart walks that high wire with ease while giving a layered and entertaining performance.
I really can’t say enough great things about this show. In an era where most musicals are either living jukeboxes or woefully underwritten, it is refreshing to see a show packed with great original songs that tackles a dramatically thorny issue, a star-crossed romance, and manages to generate a fair amount of laughs along the way as well.
“Memphis” is a powerhouse of a show and is not to be missed.
“Memphis” is now playing at the Fox Theatre through May 13. For tickets call (314)-534-1111 or go to metrotix.com.