'Memphis' heats up the Hippodrome
Maybe it’s the timing.
“Memphis,” the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, is not the deepest or most original of works. But this exuberant tale of race and music in the 1950s seems to take on added substance at the Hippodrome this week, given how freshly divided the country is right now over the Trayvon Martin case.
And maybe it’s the location.
Given Baltimore’s own history of strained race relations and gaps between “white” and “black” pop music back in the day, “Memphis” can’t help but provide extra resonance and relevance. The show is, in many ways, a pretty close cousin to the endearing “Hairspray,” right down to scenes of a TV dance program where taboos are shattered.
However it’s considered, this national touring production of “Memphis” sure does hit the spot. It provides a hefty serving of entertainment as it gives you a little extra to chew on.
With a book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music and lyrics by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, “Memphis” centers around a white, gangly high-school dropout named Huey Calhoun who manages, in record time, to break racial and musical barriers in his hometown.
Of course, Huey nearly ...
sets off a few race riots along the way, especially after he falls hard for a young black singer, Felicia Farrell. Their difficulties starting, let alone maintaining, a relationship provide a major plot thread.
Although complex issues in that relationship often merit no more than a few quick lines, considerable character development is achieved by the end, enough to give the musical a real heart to go along with a good beat.
The music succeeds in establishing the gritty appeal of the Memphis style, though with what sounds to me like a little more 1960s flavoring than ’50s. Too bad there isn’t one good earworm out of some 20 songs.
Not too many of the lyrics are worth remembering, either. Many are trite or awkward (“See, I was lost until I found the music of my soul”). Others are just plain cringe-worthy. Some are all of the above (“I will make my colored dreams come true, for this is one colored woman who will color her life her way”).
And, as with many a musical these days, dialogue that would be much better spoken ends up getting sung, leading to many a clunky moment.
Fortunately, the singers assembled here can make you forget all of that. They jump into every number with a disarming naturalness and infectious energy. In the same way, they create credible characters with fully fleshed-out personalities.
Bryan Fenkart shines as Huey. He’s got a great drawl going, and a rubbery way of moving that gives the show one more layer of choreography. He sings sturdily as well.
More important, Fenkart astutely brings out Huey’s lovable naivete about everything in the would around him — legal or customary segregation, social manners, business, corporate-think — and taps tellingly into the sweet guy beneath the impossible fashion sense.
Felicia Boswell gives an electric performance as Felicia. Physically reminiscent of an early Supremes-era Diana Ross, she exudes star quality from the moment she enters. Her acting is beautifully nuanced, often quite affecting. And her voice has terrific range, stamina and nuance, enabling her to sell even the weakest songs.
Quentin Earl Darrington is a vibrant presence as Felicia’s protective brother Delray.
Other standouts include Will Mann as Bobby, the radio station janitor who becomes one of Huey’s most loyal confederates; and Rhett George as the initially mute Gator, bartender in Delray’s nightclub. (Of course, the character finds his voice, one of several plot points signaled well ahead of time with all the subtlety of a semaphore.)
Nearly walking off with the show is Julie Johnson as Huey’s pathetically bigoted yet wonderfully redeemable, mother. Her comic timing and vocal inflections are impeccable; her gutsy singing lights up the whole theater.
The well-polished ensemble never flags, even when Sergio Trujillo’s dance sequences are at their most kinetic. An excellent band keeps the score churning mightily.
Christopher Ashley’s fluent direction has the show moving briskly through David Gallo’s clever set, which easily evokes the days of separate and not equal, “race records” and the musical spark that would bring a whole bunch of people together in Memphis and beyond.
Here's a taste of the action:
PHOTOS BY PAUL KOLNIK