MARK ANDREW LAWRENCE
December 14, 2011
Sensational dancing and an exuberant star performance by Bryan Fenkart drive the show Memphis, now on stage at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.
Fenkart plays a hapless disc jockey, Huey Calhoun, who introduces Memphis radio listeners to the sounds of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues during the ultra-conservative years of the mid-1950s.
Inspired by the career of Tennessee-born DJ Dewey Phillips, Memphis takes us to a time and place when radio was run by unadventurous owners who resisted any attempt to integrate what was then called “race” music into their playlists.
Huey is a renegade, a fast-talking high school dropout who manages to land his own show on a local radio station where he defies the owner by playing the music he has heard in one of the city’s underground clubs.
In particular, Huey showcases a singer he has discovered, Felicia. They quickly fall in love, but this is a time when interracial marriage is against the law and the pair runs into painfully violent opposition to their relationship.
Felicia’s first record is a soulful ballad called Someday and when Huey plays it, the response from his teenaged listeners is sensational. Soon an executive from RCA records comes to town to lure Felicia to New York with promises of fame and fortune. He even offers to bring Huey to the big city as well, as long as the couple keeps their relationship discreet.
David Bryan and Joe DiPietro supply some appropriately jivey music for this show, and while some of the songs attempt to mimic the sound of the era, much of the score offers more rhythm than blues. The songs provide plenty of atmosphere, but rarely develop the plot or characters. Huey is given two powerful anthems, The Music of my Soul and Memphis Lives in Me that underscore his passion for this music, but most of the rest is simply there to inspire the dancers.
The ensemble executes Sergio Trujillo’s high wattage choreography with both precision and wild abandon. The opening number, Underground, sets the bar very high, but subsequent numbers keep moving it higher.
The cast of this touring production is on a par with the excellent original Broadway company. Felicia Boswell brings beauty and poise to the role of Felicia, with Quentin Earl Darrington giving a strong performance as her overly protective brother, Delray. Rhett George is a clear audience favourite as Delray’s friend, Gator, who breaks his vow of silence to lead an impassioned prayer for peace and tolerance at the climax of Act One.
Christopher Ashley’s brisk direction keeps the focus on the story. The book deals with issues of integration, racism and intolerance that have been explored in other shows (notably Ragtime and Hairspray), but as developed in Memphis, these elements remain powerfully persuasive.
Dancap Productions presents Memphis at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until Dec. 24. For tickets, visitwww.dancaptickets.com/pages/memphis or call the box office at 416-644-3665.
Mark Andrew Lawrence reviews theatre productions for The North York Mirror.