The birth of rock 'n' roll would seem to be too broad a topic to be covered in the short span of a Broadway musical, but Memphis has found a way to successfully tell one aspect of that story and with incredibly catchy music to boot. The national tour cast that played in Des Moines rivals any touring cast currently on the road.
Memphis follows Huey, a white radio DJ, and Felicia, a black singer looking for her big break, in 1950's Memphis. Huey falls head over heels for Felicia and she reluctantly gives in to her feelings for him. Though they are different races and come from different backgrounds, Huey is determined to make Felicia a star.
The depth of talent among all of the cast members was phenomenal. Bryan Fenkart as Huey and Felicia Boswell as Felicia headline a cast that amazed with song and dance. Even the characters that at first seemed not to require strong vocals, Gator (Rhett George) and Gladys (Julie Johnson), brought down the house when showcased. Most Broadway shows in recent history do not rely on dance to create the feel of the setting as much as Memphis. Thankfully, the entire ensemble was adept with all of the choreography and at times moved with such speed that one wonders how they avoided dropping from exhaustion at the end of each number.
Yet even among such a talented cast, Fenkart and Boswell really stood out. Both have voices that can reach the rafters. Boswell hit all the high notes with great clarity, particularly on “Underground” and “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls.” Fenkart gave Huey an almost gritty speaking tone but when it came to hitting the notes he was spot on as well.
The set design and lighting complimented the show perfectly and were noticeably strong without detracting from the performers. The set consisted of a few interchangeable pieces that allowed for smooth transitions from a radio station, to a nightclub, an apartment, and a TV studio. The lighting aligned to the tone of the given scene, dark and hazy during the eruptions of race-fueled violence and bright and colorful during rollicking numbers such as “Steal Your Rock and Roll.”
The only issue with Memphis is that there seems to be a tug of war between focusing on the Huey-Felicia arc and telling the broader story of the obstacles that blacks faced in the Jim Crow South. Both are compelling stories, but for a Broadway musical with limited time to tell them, a clear focus would eliminate some of the jarring transitions from being very specifically focused on Huey and Felicia’s relationship to battling network executives for the right to keep the black dancers on Huey’s local dance show.
Memphis succeeds on the strength of the cast and the music, more than enough reason to check it out. And though it has ended its’ Des Moines run, you should jump at the chance to see the show if it plays in a city near you. Be sure to wear your dancing shoes!
Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik