By Richard Ouzounian
4 stars (out of 4)
Book by Joe DiPietro. Music & Lyrics by David Bryan. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Until Dec. 24 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St. 416-640-0172.
Wow! I don’t know about you, but in these days when every musical either seems to be a revival or based on a movie, it’s a real kick to find a show that’s original in every sense of the word.
Welcome to Memphis, which Dancap Productions opened at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Wednesday night and I caught at its Tuesday preview.
I’d seen the show on Broadway in 2009 right after it opened and had enjoyed it, but wasn’t exactly blown away.
So something must have happened between now and then. My best guess is that a slightly stripped-down production with an emphasis on honesty rather than glitz has helped this show find its groove.
Let me make it clear. Memphis is an explosion of energy, joy and emotion you won’t want to miss! It’s loosely based on the true story of Dewey Phillips, a Memphis boy who was one of the very first white disc jockeys in America to play black music on the radio back in the 1950s.
Joe DiPietro’s book has a couple of stories it wants to tell, which is all well and good. Besides a portrait of that renegade and true original that Dewey was, we also get into an interracial affair he had with a singer of the period, their struggle to survive against the bigotry of the times and the final life lessons they both had to learn about what it really means to be free.
DiPietro’s dialogue is witty, tangy and accurate. It’s only occasionally that his plot machinations get mechanical or sentimental, but I guarantee that you’ll find a lump in your throat on several occasions.
If a show is about music and how it made people want to jive, you’re going to want to deliver those qualities big time and this show does, with singing that rocks your soul and dancing that rocks your world!
Mercifully, this is not a jukebox musical, but composer-lyricist David Bryan knows how to deliver the style of the period handily. Interestingly enough, his songs are better when they’re trying to depict character or help tell the story rather than just coast through on atmosphere, but a smoking 9-piece band keeps the sound hot and the cast raise the temperature to sizzling.
Sergio Trujillo’s choreography adds coals to the inferno, with movement that plain just doesn’t stop. We know from Jersey Boys that he can capture this style, but in Memphis, he kicks it up towards art, playing with the authentic touches to add some hits of Fosse, or riffs from modern dance that take us just that extra step we need.
Ultimately, this show depends on its cast and here we’re on solid ground.
Bryan Fenkart lets it all hang out as Huey (as Dewey Phillips is called here), beginning as an illiterate good ol’ boy with a passion for black music and a tongue that won’t stop flapping.
But as the show goes on, we see an interesting portrait of a man handed fame who isn’t ready to deal with it and by the time he stands front and centre to wail the 11 o’clock number, “Memphis Lives In Me,” you get a real sense of a guy who’s been on a journey and learned something along the way.
Felicia Boswell is a perfect magic of silk and spice as Felicia, the singer who rises to the top, first because of Huey and then, despite him. Her Act I song of revelation, “Colored Woman,” brings down the house and rightly so.
I also loved Julie Johnson’s Mama, who goes from trailer trash to show biz savvy, Quentin Earl Darrington’s big brother with an agenda and Will Mann’s gentle giant with a twinkle in his eye.
Credit director Christopher Ashley with helping bringing out so many solid performances and thank Dewey Phillips, for bringing black music into the heart and soul of North American sound and makingMemphis possible.