The traveling road show edition of Memphis, winner of the 2010 Tony Award for Broadway’s Best Musical, arrived at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House this weekend past. DC is the first stop, launching its national tour. It’s a show that regales its audiences with a hot, evocative score, some smashing song and dance numbers, plenty of glitzy staging and costuming, and an energetic cast that really knows how to sell a show—particularly the show’s leads Bryan Fenkart as Huey and Felicia Boswell as Felicia.
Memphis has an intentional retro feel to it, which is perfect for this distinctly period piece. Its plot is based on real events that occurred in the early R&B (aka “race music”) heyday of the 1950s.
The show’s opening scenes alternate between the studios of a third-tier Memphis radio station and the seedy but lively premises of a popular black R&B club on the now legendary Beale Street. The plot at this point in time is almost predictable: white hick with no credentials becomes an instant sensation by spinning recordings of black entertainers and gaining an audience of white kids—utterly verboten in an era where Jim Crow still reigned supreme in the Solid South. It’s a little bit of Elvis before Elvis, a look inside a world in which canny radio deejays were able to shape youthful musical tastes in a profound, enduring, and even path-breaking way.
Our hero, the illiterate white hick Huey, discovers his true calling when he stumbles into the aforementioned black club and discovers the kind of music he knows he’s been searching for all his life. Complicating matters, he falls madly in love with Felicia, the club’s sexy chanteuse, raising the fear and ire of the club’s owner and patrons who see this white intrusion as only bringing trouble and, perhaps, an unwanted visit by the KKK.
Love conquers all, of course, more or less, as Huey manages to get Felicia on the radio and eventually gets himself, Felicia, and her ensemble up to New York. There, they have the opportunity to audition for a TV show its producers hope will unseat Dick Clark from his heretofore secure afternoon broadcast kingdom. Things don’t exactly work out as planned, however, bringing the show to a bittersweet denouement.
While Memphis has won many plaudits on Broadway, it’s an odd show in many respects. True, it’s loaded with plenty of toe-tapping solos and ensembles. It’s lively, fast-paced, crisp, and professional in every way. But it boasts the flimsiest of plots and character development, a weakness even in the cotton-candy land of popular Broadway entertainment. Cliché runs into cliché. Worse, the show’s final two scenes seem tacked on almost as an afterthought in order to provide a mostly happy ending.
As a character, Huey is a real problem. He is more stupid than lovable, a trait actually shared by the remaining dimwitted whites in the cast, all of whom, more or less, are caricatures from an era that, admittedly, almost begs for this kind of portrayal. Yet here, it’s all too pat, all too easy to be entirely believed.
The show’s black characters, on the other hand, are more carefully developed as human beings. This uneven combination often lacks verisimilitude, particularly in the show’s complicated central love story in which a highly poised and intelligent Felicia falls madly in love with the goofy, dangerously white country bumpkin who gets her that initial big break. It’s two-dimensional, really, a bit like Hee-Haw meets Motown. The elements for romantic chemistry simply aren’t there, although the leads do their utmost to compensate for this.
At its heart, the show’s weakness is really Joe DiPietro’s book. Happily, this is mostly redeemed by David Bryan’s crisp, exuberant score as it is by its solid cast. Like many popular operas with impossibly dumb plots (Mozart’s Magic Flute comes to mind), the music here will provide plenty of memories and good times for the audience, which is likely not to worry about this show’s Swiss cheese plot.
Better yet, particularly for audience members who lived through this era, this production, directed by Christopher Ashley, hits all the right nostalgic musical notes, with entertainers flitting in and out bearing strong resemblances to entertainers like Little Richard and other big-time R&B stars.
In contrast, DiPietro does manage also to convey the sense of menace and violence that lurked over this particular music scene, most notably in the South. The show’s moments of darkness, although brief, do manage to accurately convey the difficulties inherent in pop music’s political and actual evolution into a multi-racial phenomenon, based, as is jazz, not on European but on African-American motifs. All in all, Memphis is a very mixed bag that somehow works as its essential good nature triumphs over its structural weaknesses in the end.
The opening night performance had the audience fully involved early and often. Costuming was colorful and evocative. The small onstage band punched out a driving, irresistible sound, a cross between early Motown and the brassy riffs of the band, “Chicago.” The music was expertly amplified save for those few seemingly inevitable moments where the instruments overwhelm a singer’s ability to belt out the lyrics.
In her turn as her eponymous character, Felicia Boswell is truly the star of this show. Her voice is characterized by its infinite ability to shade the emotions of a song, whether quiet and heartfelt, or passionate and highly charged. She’s an elegant actress as well, as she creates the most well-rounded, believable character in this production.
Bryan Fenkart, frankly, does a magnificent job portraying the hokey Huey. Working from DiPietro’s two-dimensional cartoon, Fenkart adds some self-deprecating humor to the part as well as some believable pathos, particularly in the show’s second stanza. It helps that he’s a pretty credible R&B singer in his own right, proving that both he and his character are at least in their element when it comes to musical taste and communication.
A special hat tip also goes to Julie Johnson who portrays Huey’s (initially) racist mom. She, like Huey, begins as a caricature. But after getting a load of gospel music at a local black church, she finds her calling. Her ultimate eruption as virtually the re-incarnation of Janis Joplin near the show’s closing moments was way over the top and sent Thursday’s audience into a frenzy of appreciation.
Memphis runs thru July 1, 2012 at The Kennedy Center, Opera House, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC.
by Joe DiPietro, with music and lyrics by David Bryan and additional lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Presented by The Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including 1 intermission