For a musical to resonate, the path to true love must be a difficult one — with no obstacles to overcome, there is no emotional investment by the audience. Memphis‘s central romance rivals West Side Story‘s lovers’ dilemma but adds a historical reality that gives it an extra kick. When Felicia Boswell reminds her interracial lover that it is illegal for them to wed, the audience gasps in recognition and shock. And the gay component winces with an extra bit of bitterness. From our supposedly cozily cosmopolitan perch in multi-racial Toronto, it seems inconceivable that as late as the 1960s interracial marriage was not only socially unacceptable but also against the law. Yet the Gulnare Freewill Baptist church in Kentucky just banned an interracial couple from services, and the battle for gay marriage is far from over in the grand old U S of A. It’s hard to be smug when confronted with how little things have changed, except on the surface, and Memphis is a potent reminder that doing the right thing and standing up for social change is often painful but absolutely necessary.
That makes Memphis sound like a political tract or activist theatre, which it is thank goodness, but it is also a rollicking good time. The stage explodes with inventive dance moves set to a non-stop beat and stellar vocal performances. From dramatic moment to showstopping song — there are at least six — Memphisdoesn’t stop for a second. Gospel-inflected R&B done Broadway style is always infectious, and the cast grabs on to the songs and milks them for all they’re worth. Even the cliché situations that can be seen coming — the mother, a spectacular Julie Johnson, overcomes her racism and suddenly sings roof-raising gospel — are excused by great voices and emotionally pitch-perfect performances.
Bryan Fenkart is a gangly, oddly sexy lead, and Felicia Boswell is sheer sexiness — they generate a smouldering heat that makes the audience believe and makes the tragedy of their ill-fated love heartbreaking. And what could be more charming than watching bobbysoxers transform into beboppers? The interracial finale is subtle but powerful and makes a happy ending out of a realistic and somewhat bitter dénouement. Memphisis irresistable, and the audience rose at the end in an ovation that was not Toronto politeness but actual enthusiasm. Chilly North York is pulsating with heat for as long as Memphis is in town.
Memphis runs till Sat, Dec 24 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St. dancaptickets.com