Up at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, a very recent musical is playing. It’s also Tony award-winning, but don’t let that put you off. Written by the solid librettist Joe DiPietro, along with David Byran, the gifted composer and long-time keyboardist of rock group Bon Jovi, Memphis is a fine show that I wish could have stayed for months in Toronto, but it’s running until only Dec. 24.
The story is lightly based on a (white) disc jockey in the ’50s in the southern United States who did a daring thing at the time: he started to play “race music.” Of course, he also helped turn Elvis Presley into one of the most popular and beloved musical stars of the 20th century. (Presley’s real claim to fame was that he almost single-handedly made African-American music acceptable to the American white majority.)
Bryan’s music consists of pretty satisfactory imitations of mid-century rock ‘n’ roll. The white DJ Huey is played wonderfully by Bryan Fenkart, and Felicia, the black female singer who rides to the top and beyond (and is also the DJ’s love interest), is played by the striking Felicia Boswell, whose voice is booming and ethereal.
I was personally moved to tears a dozen times, since I was involved in Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964 as a teacher, and experienced the glorious rhythm and blues of the local Baptist church — the likes of which gave birth to modern rock ‘n’ roll — every single Sunday.
Memphis is delightful entertainment. It’s hardly a great musical — you may not be able to hum a single tune from the show — but it has a rollicking sense of freedom, and it’s full of hope for America to grow into multi-racial greatness.