I won't lie. MEMPHIS was the show I was most looking forward to when PlayhouseSquare's 2011-2012 season was announced last spring. While I hadn't previously seen it live, I'd been a fan of MEMPHIS since its performance on the 2010 Tony Awards when it picked up four trophies, once of which was for Best Musical. Since then, the cast album gets regular play time on my iPod and I was sitting at the movie theatre when the filmed version of the Broadway production made a limited run on the big screen. So, needless to say, I was pretty much counting down the days until the tour arrived in Cleveland.
I'm happy to say that with all the hype and anticipation I had built up for myself, the first National Tour cast and company did not disappoint. At all.
MEMPHIS tells the story of Huey Calhoun, a white DJ who makes it his mission to get "colored music" played on a radio station at the center of the dial in the 1950s. When Huey discovers Felicia Farrell singing in her brother's nightclub on Beale Street, he not only falls in love with her voice, but he falls in love with her. Their relationship isn't an easy one. Over the years, Huey moves from his popular radio show to his popular television show. He makes a name for himself in Memphis even if he doesn't always follow the rules or travel the road others want him to.
Written by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan (of Bon Jovi), the music is a combination of rhythm & blues, gospel and rock & roll. The show starts and ends with show-stopping numbers – "Underground" and "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll." There are soulful numbers like Huey's "Memphis Lives in Me" and Felicia's "Colored Woman." I guarantee you'll leave the theatre humming at least one of them (and if I had to guess, it'll most likely be "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll").
Bryan Fenkart completely embodies Huey Calhoun and makes him his own. His performance is layered and nuanced. Huey isn't just a simple man with one singular passion – Fenkart makes him real, makes him loyal, makes him the type of person you'd like to be friends with. He not only shows Huey's crazy side but his tender side. Felicia Boswell's voice soars as Felicia Farrell. She belts out song after song with what appears to be minimal effort. Boswell plays Felicia as a woman committed to a relationship with a man she truly loves, all the while mindful of how that relationship will affect her budding career, struggling with the decision she ultimately must make.
Scene-stealing performances come from Julie Johnson as Mama and Will Mann as Bobby. Scenes that immediately come to mind are Johnson's performance of "Change Don't Come Easy" and Mann's phone-answering when Huey first DJs at the radio station. The whole ensemble needs to be complimented and praised though, especially for their dancing skills. Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, MEMPHIS is full of complex and creative dancing. Just when you think you've seen the best the cast has to offer, they outdo themselves over and over again.
Be sure to catch the show before it leaves town. If you do, MEMPHIS is sure to live in you. Hockadoo!
MEMPHIS runs through March 11th at the Palace Theatre with evening and matinee performances still available. Tickets range from $10 to $85. Purchase tickets online at www.playhousesquare.org or by calling the box office at 216.241.6000. The Palace Theatre is located at 1615 Euclid Avenue, in the heart of Cleveland's theatre district.
Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik.