Memphis is the story of R&B in the 50s and how it crossed into the “white folk” music along with love and race relations. The play is set, very clearly, in a segregated Memphis, TN. From the get go, racial tension manifests itself and the tone is set on the harsh and ugly realities of second class citizenship.But it is the music, co-written by a member of Bon Jovi which is fresh, pure and as electrifying as was the score for Rent back in 1996. The script isn’t watered down so be prepared to hear some offensive language.
Loosely based on pioneering DJ Dewey Phillips, Huey Calhoun is played by Bryan Fenkart as an out-there caricature that takes some getting used to. He’s an odd duck, but from the very beginning Fenkart is a likable guy, and comes across endearing. His reckless-rebel streak seems authentic, and his passion for black music and for one black singer in particular is consuming.
Felicia Boswell plays Felicia Ferrell, a black singer in love with the white DJ, but Ms. Boswell plays Felicia with such brillo and panache which is only outmatched by her singing voice. That voice of hers will make you wonder why she is not selling albums instead of theater tickets.
The supporting and ensemble cast are equally talented and gifted with voices that sound like angels with soul.
The physical elements are seamless and work wonderfully, helping transition from place to place and never reminding you that you that you, in fact, haven’t moved at all. David Gallo’s set effectively blends dusty window panes and crumbling plaster work with video detailing to evoke multiple locations, from Delray’s joint below street level to the shabby home Huey shares with his God-fearing waitress Mama (Julie Johnson) to the radio station where the illiterate kid finagles a DJ job. Paul Tazewell and Howell Binkley create bright, engaging and memorable costumes and lighting that help round out this vibrant world that is Memphis.
From the moment you hit, “Underground” to the final moments of “Steal Your Rock n’ Roll,” Memphis will take you on a ride that you will never forget. You will laugh, you will cry and you will certainly feel goose bumps, Memphis is remarkable.