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Memphis: Timeless story for modern times

Published on Wednesday, February 22, 2012

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Felicia Boswell (Felicia), Rhett George (Gator), Bryan Fenkart (Huey) and Will Mann (Bobby) are members of the cast performing “Memphis” through Sunday at The Peace Center.
 

Paul Kolnik

Felicia Boswell (Felicia), Rhett George (Gator), Bryan Fenkart (Huey) and Will Mann (Bobby) are members of the cast performing “Memphis” through Sunday at The Peace Center.

 




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Remaining show dates and times
Friday, 8 p.m.
Saturday 2 & 8 p.m.
Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $45, $55, $65, $75
Call 864-467-3000 or 800-888-7768
http://www.peacecenter.org

Remaining show dates and times

Friday, 8 p.m.

Saturday 2 & 8 p.m.

Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $45, $55, $65, $75

Call 864-467-3000 or 800-888-7768

http://www.peacecenter.org

By Bart Bishop

Having played more than 800 performances, Memphis is a musical by David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (lyrics and book). Created in 2002, it started on Broadway in 2008 and won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2010. Now it's come to the Peace Center. 

This is its first national tour, one which started appropriately enough at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis, Tenn., in October of last year. This is the second show in the 2011-2012 season's Broadway Series (the first was Peter Pan, and the others will be Les Misérables and The Lion King), and the first time I've been to the Peace Center since before construction began last year. It is great to see the new beautiful plaza and how the building is shaping up, and Memphis is a perfect welcome back after a long absence.

Loosely based on Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s, Memphis tells the story of Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) as he fulfills the American dream and then loses it all. 

Set in the turbulent south of the Civil Rights era, Huey's story is one that transcends racial lines as he meets Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington) and his sister Felicia (Felicia Boswell) at Delray's rhythm and blues night club, and falls in love with Felicia. Huey vows to make her famous, and cons his way onto radio and eventually television to do just that. As Huey and Felicia struggle to keep their love a secret for their own safety, the lure of money and glory in New York starts to tear them apart. 

Bryan Fenkart is the heart of the show. With his long, gangly legs he's an offbeat sort of handsome, and an offbeat choice for a lead as he's not the best singer or dancer. He is, however, full of charisma and sincerity. The irony of his character is that amidst tumultuous times he's the only one that doesn't change. Fenkhart starts off the show with a progressive view of the world, loving "negro blues" and wanting to play it for anyone that will listen. 

Felicia Boswell, by contrast, has to show her character's evolution from being a big fish in a little pond in Memphis to getting thrown into the deep end of New York City. She's a wonder to see, mastering the stage with her booming vocal range and torrential gyrations. Their relationship is inevitable, but the two have electric chemistry. During "Someday" near the end of Act I, the show really started to click and much of that stemmed from the authenticity of their eye contact and body language. 

Darrington as Delray, however, is the most important character in the show. Delray's constant reprimanding of Huey for stealing "black music" and not having earned the right to play it rings true. Memphis is a familiar story at this point, with bestselling books like “The Immortal Life” of Henrietta Lacks and popular movies like “The Help” depicting a white lead character swooping in to save the poor black folks. 

Delray reminds the audience that he lived this music, and Darrington's commanding presence hints at quiet pain hidden underneath loud pride. This theme of "blackness" is finally brought to the forefront late in the show when Huey and Felicia argue over who is fighting harder for the rights of African-Americans, with Felicia declaring she's not a sellout. Huey can turn off his blackness whenever he wants and go back to being white, but at the end of the day she's stuck with few choices. These three characters form a trinity dealing with these heavy and powerful issues that are just as relevant today as back in the 1950s. 

Although this is comparatively a small cast, everyone is important. Julie Johnson as Huey's Mama Gladys is especially fun as she starts off a sassy bigot but experiences a reluctant religious and philosophical conversion during the crowd pleasing number "Change Don't Come Easy". 

The Peace Center's big, deep stage, meanwhile, allows for this dance intensive show to shine, and benefits from modern technology. A motif, playing into the racial themes, is introduced early on the black and white radio dial projected high up on the stage, as Huey repeatedly states that he'll move his African-American friends away from the far right and smack dab in the middle. This is continued in Act II in which the majority takes place on Huey's television show and a live black and white feed is projected above. The show is full of dazzling colors, as well, from the vivid greens and purples of Delray's nightclub to the sparkling gold of the finale "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll".

This opening night audience was incredibly responsive, gasping at the harsh language and shocking violence, but also clapping at all the right places and even along with the show. It was an older crowd to be sure (although there was a scattering of young women), and telling that the majority of the audience might have experienced this distressing past firsthand. David Bryan and Joe DiPietro weren't there, as they were born in the early '60s. 

Memphis, however, has a tension of conflict between generations. There's enough distance from those times to gain perspective, but not enough that history can be softened. The crowd was also comprised of eclectic dress: everything from suits to blue jeans, from cowboy hats to bald spots. This was a very southern crowd, and a very American crowd for an American show. This is appropriate, as Memphis is topical not just with the issues of race, but class as personified by Huey's poor roots and the white, rich figures of authority that stand in his way. 

It's a timeless story for modern times. Social norms are bent, some even broken, from one generation to the next but that doesn't have to be a negative. Memphis isn't the first story to tackle race and class with bluntness, but it's the newest and loudest and, frankly, one of the most honest.

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