Review: “Memphis” lifts you higher and higher

Felicia Boswell as Felicia and Bryan Fenkart as Huey in “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

 

By John Moore

Oct. 10, 2012

“Memphis” is a sparkling Broadway musical that, to start, takes on race relations in almost the vein of a superficial fairy tale: A well-meaning white man wanders into the danger of a blues club on the dark side of town with all the blissful naivete of Larry Kroger in “Animal House.” The power of music to heal centuries-old hate and social injustice becomes evident in the story’s first fanciful few minutes. We know where this is going.

Actually, we don’t.

Give writer Joe DiPietro some credit: Like any good grim (or Grimm) fairy tale, “Memphis” spreads frightening violence and surprisingly complex moral quandaries like bread crumbs along its unpredictable way. But it’s staged within the palatable structure of a traditional Broadway musical, which is largely why, paired with its gravity-defying choreography, soulful original score and huge heart, “Memphis” won the 2010 Tony Award for best musical.

When it won, it was the favorite, but not necessarily the obvious pick. It was seen then as the safe choice up against form-bending new musicals like “Fela!” and “American Idiot.” It was a worthy choice, but I preferred “Fela” — and it’s a shame the closest we may ever come to seeing that great musical about the legendary Afrobeat pioneer in Denver was a Boulder concert last March by his son, Seun Kuti.

But then came a surprisingly powerful simulcast of a Broadway performance of “Memphis” that was beamed to movie theaters nationwide, bringing a wall-sized immediacy to the racial stakes at play. “Memphis” is now touring the country, stopping in Denver through Oct. 21, and the biggest surprise might be how this visiting production manages to strike an even more resonant chord – both emotionally and vocally – than the dynamite original Broadway cast.

Check that. The biggest surprise, hands down, is that the Tony-winning original score was written by Dave Bryan, best known as the keyboard player for the big-hair metal band Bon Jovi. I overheard an older audience member at Tuesday’s opening performance in Denver  commenting on how surprised she was that she hadn’t heard the infectious pop ditty “Someday” growing up. She didn’t because she couldn’t. The song didn’t exist then. At a time when the easy route to Broadway is to populate your musical with existing, known pop sings like “Rock of Ages,” this one boldly writes its own period pop.

Like Jackie Wilson’s beloved song, this musical keeps lifting you “higher and higher” … and maybe because it doesn’t rely on existing songs like “Higher and Higher” to make its case. As Bon Jovi namesake Jon Bon Jovi himself said, Bryan’s house-imploding climactic ode “Memphis Lives in Me” “is the greatest song Elton John never sung.”

The touring cast is remarkable, though with four understudies on Tuesday, the staging was unsteady in brief places. Honestly, I never thought any woman could ever touch what Montego Glover pulled off as Felicia on Broadway, but touring star Felicia Boswell made it plain Tuesday that both women are clearly touched by some higher power.

Felicia (the character) is a young black singer with no chance of having her voice heard in 1950s Memphis outside her Sunday church service. Not until a renegade white DJ named Huey (loosely based on Dewey Phillips), well … wanders into her brother’s all-black club and promises to get her heard on middle-of-the-dial mainstream Memphis radio stations. Boswell presents a more hardened and opportunistic Felicia who understands from the start that stardom and freedom from the stifling hometown her lover is deeply rooted to will come at a profound cost — and the choices she makes may surprise you.

She is joined by co-star Bryan Fenkart, who, like Boswell, was a standby in the Broadway company of “Memphis.” Both were promoted to leading roles for this national touring production.

Felicia Boswell as Felicia in “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Fenkart is a poor sot who’s cursed by the physical inability to believably embody the short, odd-looking (and odd-sounding) man the character of Huey the DJ is often described to be. It’s curious whenever Hugo is referred to as a strange-looking man when, bizarre fashion sense notwithstanding, Fenkart is clearly cut from the cloth of the classic Broadway leading man. Well, there are curses and there are curses, I guess. Theater requires some  suspension of disbelief, so it’s best to just let that ride. Like Boswell, Fenkart is an accomplished singer who achieves emotional highs and lows as an actor with the same kind of range that a four-octave singer hits notes. Chad Kimball, who originated the role on Broadway, deserved his Tony nomination, despite employing a spoken cadence that seemed bent on intentionally alienating audiences. But even performing in a theater twice as big as Broadway, Fenkart connects with his love interest, and his audience, in a singular way.

Another standout is Julie Johnson as Huey’s mother, whose racism is initially sold as pure Southern comic caricature. But the audience’s laughter quickly shifts to justifiable seething and finally to catharsis as her Gladys slowly changes her deeply-seeded ways.

Having seen “Memphis” in three iterations now, I had no intention of reviewing this national touring production. But damn it to Jackson, “Memphis” had me tearing up again at its not-so-obvious climax. That, I figure, is reason enough to want to help spread its musical gospel.

John Moore was the theater critic at The Denver Post from 2001-11, and in 2011 was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in America by American Theatre magazine.

 

Ticket information:

When: Through Oct. 21

Where: Buell Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th & Curtis streets.

Tickets: $25-$105 

Contact: denvercenter.org or 303-893-4100

 

More coverage:

“Memphis” on the movie screen: Is it better than Broadway?

John Moore’s Broadway review of “Memphis” (originally published in The Denver Post on June 10, 2010)

Quote: “Everybody wants to be black on a Saturday night.”

Think of it as “Hairspray” — with a different kind of heft. Not the heft of that little fat girl who singlehandedly integrated Baltimore with the swivel of her John Waters hip. “Memphis” instead tells the tale of the first white DJ (loosely based on Dewey Phillips) to put so-called “race” music on mainstream radio in 1950s Memphis, to both his great wealth and peril. This musical has everything Broadway audiences have always loved — showstopping, singable songs set to fantastic choreography and the kind of story from our recent past that leaves us feeling slightly superior about how far we’ve come since the bad old days. Despite the truly wrenching potential of this story — it includes interracial love, racism, violence and professional betrayal — it’s palatably told here, straight down the middle of the road, just like Broadway audiences usually want it. (It’s written by Joe DiPietro of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”). What makes it a powerful musical to be truly reckoned with is its irresistible score. The songs are so authentic to the period, you may not believe this is all-original power-pop, R&B and gospel written by, of all people, David Bryan of Bon Jovi.

Colorado connection: Montego Glover, a favorite to win the best-actress Tony, appeared in the Arvada Center’s “Putting it Together.”

 

National touring production of “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

 

Felicia Boswell and the national touring production of “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

 

Bryan Fenkart as Huey in “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

 

Julie Johnson as Huey’s mother, Gladys, in the national touring production of “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

 

National touring production of “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.