Nashville will always be known as the one and only Music City. But it seems that local audiences lost their hearts to Memphis on Tuesday night, with the opening of the Tony Award-winning musical in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall.
With music and lyrics by Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan, and book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro (based on a concept by George W. George), Memphis tells the story of Huey Calhoun. The fictional white DJ brings rhythm & blues, or “race music,” to the mainstream in the 1950s. But along with his passion for the music of Beale Street, Huey also develops an interest in a particularly lovely singer named Felicia.
In the still-segregated South, there’s not much of a future for their interracial romance. But there’s an undeniable — if somewhat overly simplistic — message of hope behindMemphis. And while the character-driven songs are not entirely memorable, they do a fine job of capturing the era’s rock ’n’ roll roots.
At first, Bryan Fenkart seems an unlikely hero as Huey, often coming off more hick than hip. But that’s part of his charm. And beyond all his motor-mouthed mischief (his nonsensical catch phrase “Hockadoo!” becomes an instant sensation), Fenkart brings a genuine sense of wonder as he discovers his own potential right along with the music.
Felicia Boswell is absolutely stunning as the “fantastical” Felicia. She establishes her character — and her vocal power — early on in the bluesy “Underground.” But she is just as at home with toe-tapping gospel (“Make Me Stronger”), pop (an almost Diana Ross-infused “Someday”) or power anthem (“Colored Woman”).
The pair receive ample support from some big men with even bigger voices. Quentin Earl Darrington strikes an imposing figure as Felicia’s protective brother and club owner, Delray. Rhett George spends much of the first act in silence (his character Gator hasn’t spoken since witnessing his father’s lynching as a child), but finally finds his voice in the moving “Say a Prayer.” And Will Mann is charming as Bobby, a radio station janitor who drops his broom and raises the roof with the rousing “Big Love.”
Julie Johnson also is outstanding as Huey’s bigoted, but ultimately redeemable (aren’t they always?), Mama. And when she broke out in the gospel-tinged “Change Don’t Come Easy,” the opening-night audience cheered her on with glee.
The entire company is sensational — an exuberant and youthful bunch who make the most of Sergio Trujillo’s wildly inventive choreography.
The technical elements enhance the crowd-pleasing fun, with David Gallo’s set effectively transforming Jackson Hall into a gritty juke joint and various other Memphis locales. Adding to the fun are Gallo and Shawn Sagady’s projections, Paul Tazewell’s period costumes and Howell Binkley’s moody lighting. Conductor Alvin Hough Jr. also deserves special mention for leading a rockin’ onstage band.
Christopher Ashley directs with great style and energy. I particularly enjoyed the creative ways in which he introduced various musical acts of the day, both real and imagined. And where else will you find race relations remedied by a little double Dutch jump rope competition?
This “music can heal all wounds” approach may seem superficial when set against the very real social injustices of the era. But this remarkable cast makes up for whatever depth may be lacking in the show’s script.
If you’re like me, Music City will always be dear to your heart. But don’t be surprised if Memphis leaves you longing for a lazy stroll down Beale Street. Hockadoo, indeed.