‘Memphis’ brings rhythm and blues to the Fox Theatre

Photo Courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Paul Kolnik

Photo Courtesy of Paul Kolnik

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Entering the Fox Theatre on Tuesday with high expectations, I was still absolutely blown away by the new musical, “Memphis.”

Based on actual events, “Memphis” tells the story of a white disc jockey in the 1950s, infatuated with all the “wrong” things: rhythm and blues music, and a black nightclub singer. This new musical delivers a poignant and intelligent plot, with one of the most powerful and entertaining scores I have heard in a long time.

Winner of four Tony Awards in 2010, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book, “Memphis” has certainty earned its praise. One of the many highlights was the score composed by founding member and keyboardist of Bon Jovi, David Bryan.

“How could people be so bad and make me feel so good?” is a quote from the song “Music of My Soul,” which could sum up the entire evening. The protagonist, Huey Calhoun, does not understand why he is constantly punished for enjoying the “evil” rhythm and blues music for which he is so passionate. The racism evidenced in “Memphis” is something like a product of “West Side Story” and “Hairspray.”

The show opens at Delray’s, a blues nightclub, where the entirely black crowd goes crazy for singer Felicia Farrell (Felicia Boswell.) And with such a power-house voice, who couldn’t?! Enter Huey (Bryan Fenkart,) an illiterate goofball who immediately drives away the crowd because he is a white man in the wrong club. He persuades them to stay, explaining he is only there for the music in “Music of My Soul.”

When Huey is fired from his job at a local department store for playing “Negro music,” he returns to the club and promises to get Felicia on the radio (“Ain’t Nothin’ but a Kiss.”) As Huey’s career as a disc jockey soars, making him the first to play black music on a white radio station, so does his relationship with Felicia.

But adversity plagues the couple from the beginning, as Felicia’s brother (Quentin Earl Darrington) and Huey’s mama (Julie Johnson) disapprove of the bi-racial relationship. It is out of the question to make their relationship public after the two are attacked when caught sharing a kiss.

Leads Boswell and Fenkart play Felicia and Huey with an incredible amount of energy and superb voices. The perennial issue that “a white guy is solving all the black folks’ problems” is non-existent in this production. Fenkart plays Huey as the closest thing to a cartoon character as possible, without being unrealistic or unlikeable.

Boswell does the opposite with Felicia, presenting a strong, sassy woman who clearly calls the shots in the relationship. Supporting leads Johnson and Darrington portray their characters with humor, additionally representing the realism of racism.

Critics have given positive reviews on the whole, although many mention the lack of believability. It is as if the characters only act a certain way because the book tells them to do so. For example, Huey’s mama accepts the relationship finally and suddenly in Act II. But, the actors do a wonderful job and most choices seem justified.

One other qualm many have had is the plot, which noticeably slows down in Act II. In my opinion, the music distracts from this more stoic storyline following intermission.

The ensemble is worthy of enormous praise, as well. These background performers were on stage for much of the show, singing and dancing with incredible energy.

At the end of the performance, it was interesting to see the rest of the audience react. There seemed to be a great divide: should we dance and laugh to the fun encore number or cry because of the still prevalent issues of racism?

Either way, “Memphis” presented an incredibly moving and fun performance that I would highly recommend to any SLU student.

Performances run from May 1 through 13 at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. For student discount information, visit fabulousfox.com.