Memphis at the Ordway

Felicia Boswell, Rhett Georde, Bryan Fenkart and Will Mann in Memphis. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Beale Street.

Few places figure so centrally in American musical culture.  A case could be made for Congo Square in New Orleans, for the now-disappeared jazz clubs along 52nd Street, Laurel Canyon in the 1960s, the Grand Ole Opry.  But do these reign as completely as Memphis’s Beale Street, home to the great founder W.C. Handy, Memphis Minnie and, later, B.B. King and Muddy Waters?

The grandly entertaining musical Memphis (at the Ordway, through March 25) details the story of how Beale Street became Main Street.  1951.  Our hero, Huey Calhoun, walks into an underground club and the place goes silent (an unusual state of affairs in this high-decibel celebration of Memphis-style R&B); Huey is (gasp!) white.  He informs Delray, the club’s owner and brother to the immensely gifted Felicia, that he is going to get their music on the local Perry Como-esque radio.  And he makes good on this promise, braving the vicious Jim Crow racism of the times.  Perhaps by accident, Huey taps into an enormous hunger for African American-inflected R&B, Rock ‘n Roll – he’s in the right place at the right time.  Radio success becomes TV success and for a few delirious years the illiterate Huey is king.  Then RCA comes calling with its promises of national exposure; Delray and Felicia heed the call.  Calhoun, unable to forgo the black roots of the music he loves, gets left behind.

Now, a dyspeptic theater critic might belch tetchily about the derivative story, citing other shows (Hairspray, Dream Girls) and films (Cadillac Records, Ray) that have explored this material.  This critic (make sure he’s sitting down-wind) might further complain about the smug treatment of racism, the breath-taking historical inaccuracies, the formulaic plot.

But would anyone care?  Of course not.  No one goes to Memphis expecting nuance and verisimilitude.  They go for foot-stomping, exhilarating, electrifying and inspirational music and this Memphis delivers, and then some.  Book writer/lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer David Bryan have created some relentlessly entertaining, fiercely up-energy music.  The songs exhibit richness and variety despite  sameness of tempo (a real achievement): “Underground” (the stirring opener), “Everyone Wants To Be Black On Saturday Night,” et al.  The opening night crowd was euphoric.

The songs are brilliantly performed: Quentin Earl Darrington as Delray has an astonishing basso voice and a stern (and perfect) presence.  Will Mann plays Bobby (and sings) with a lithe under-stated delicacy belying his size.  Julie Johnson is a hoot as Mama; her “Change Don’t Come Easy” is a masterpiece of comedy.  As Felicia, the smoldering Felicia Boswell controls the show with passion and fervor that will take your breath away.

Bryan Fenkart plays Huey with loose-limbed exuberance.  Just as his braggadocio was about to get the best of me, he sang a brilliant number, a show-stopper if there ever was one: “Memphis Lives In Me,” Huey’s recognition that he’s a product of a time and place.    I vividly flashed on Huey at the end of his life: “For a few years, back in the 50s, man, I made this town hop.”  For Huey, it’s enough, and it makes for a highly satisfying bit of musical theater, the perfect ending for the show.

And Memphis?  It makes for a rousing evening.  Recommended.

For more info about John, please visit his website.

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