By Buzz Bellmont
Once in a long, long while a musical comes along that is so brilliantly written, directed, and performed and so deeply resounds and resonates with such truth, wisdom, and power that all we can do is be grateful that we experienced this gift in almost the same way as if we had experienced a profound spiritual awakening.
Memphis is this musical.
I first experienced Memphis in May of 2010 on Broadway shortly before it won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical which I predicted it would win.
It also won Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical by Joe DiPietro, Best Original Score by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, and Best Orchestrations by Daryl Waters and David Grant.
Memphis is still running to packed houses at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway.
Dallas Summer Musicals is hosting two weeks of the first national tour of Memphis in the Music Hall at Fair Park which opened Tuesday night, May 15, and runs through Sunday, May 27.
The touring production is slightly scaled back for touring purposes and there are two less ensemble players than the Broadway show but this first national tour is better in every way than the Broadway production.
By the way, the producers of Memphis have just announced a nine-month extension to this wildly popular national tour so Memphis will continue to wow audiences across the country through the summer of 2013.
Believe you me, the Broadway show is first class and flawless, but the touring cast seems to have gone to the next level of excellence in their quest to tell the fictional story of the quirky and totally original Huey Calhoun, a white deejay in Memphis who lives his passion in the early 50s to heavily promote the African-American R and B sound over the air waves and the fallout that he and everyone around him experiences.
Joe DiPietro’s brilliant book and touching lyrics provide a solid base from which the magnificent, mighty, and miraculous Memphis springs forth into our consciousness of musical theatre exquisitely achieved.
David Grant’s rhythmic, melodic, and highly memorable score touches the heart and soul in all of us.
In fact, I never stopped tapping my cowboy boots to the beat of the music.
My entire body became so alive to the rhythm of the fabulous score and I begun rocking back and forth so enthusiastically in my comfortable turquoise velvet chair in the Music Hall that the woman behind me had to politely ask me to stop the rocking because the back of the chair was hitting her knees!
That’s how infectious Memphis‘ dynamite score is.
Christopher Ashley‘s insightful and ingenious staging and direction are evident from the minute the curtain goes up and we are in Delray’s underground African-American club in Memphis, grooving to the beat of “Underground.”
Mr. Ashley has brilliantly cast Memphis and his principals are, in this critic’s book, better than their Broadway counterparts.
How could this happen?
Easily. A show is an ever-evolving organism that grows and changes with each new cast and family of actors that inhabit it.
When a Broadway musical tours the country, the performers travel together as a team, thereby giving the cast the incredible opportunity to form lasting relationships while on tour. This bond of friendship, camaraderie, and community becomes instantly recognizable onstage to the audience.
Quite simply, the cast Mr. Ashley has assembled here has the feeling of a real family, working together to give us, the audience, the best possible theatre experience.
This was obviously evident in the original Broadway cast.
It is simply more evident in the blazing performances of this amazing touring cast.
Felicia Boswell as Felicia Farrell, Bryan Fenkart as Huey Calhoun (Photo: Paul Kolnik)
First and foremost, Bryan Fenkart completely captures the heart and soul of Huey Calhoun as soon as he awkwardly enters Delray’s all African-American club in Memphis in the first scene.
Mr. Fenkart absolutely and completely becomes Huey Calhoun and wins us over with his brilliant performance as the nutty and crazy Huey Calhoun.
From the minute he opens his mouth to the minute he sings his first song which describes his raison d’être, the soulful and wistful “The Music of My Soul,” Mr. Fenkart captures our hearts and feeds our souls.
I never once thought that Mr. Fenkart was an actor playing a role. I never got this feeling from Chad Kimball, who played this role on Broadway.
Bryan Fenkart’s performance is so transparently real and shatteringly gripping that, from the getgo, we are keenly aware that we are in the hands of a master and he draws us in so beautifully that we are his, totally and completely, until the final curtain descends.
Chad Kimball’s performance as Huey Calhoun in the original Broadway production was more performance-driven than character-driven. Bryan Fenkart’s finds the heart of Huey Calhoun with a more character-driven than performance-driven characterization. At times, I found Chad Kimball’s performance rather annoying as he seemingly did a caricaturish impression of George W. Bush. Bryan Fenkart’s portrayal of Huey never seems cartoonish or unnatural—it is just plain magnificent.
Mr. Fenkart brings down the house with his final song, “Memphis Lives in Me,” one of the best songs in the show.
Mr. Fenkart graciously earned and accepted an overwhelming standing ovation with the humility of a great actor who has done some ingenious work in our midst.
The chemistry between Mr. Fenkart and Felicia Boswell, who brilliantly captures Felicia, is the equivalent of a Fourth of July fireworks display.
Felicia Boswell as Felicia Farrell (Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Felicia Boswell was born to play the role of Felicia, Delray’s sister whom Huey Calhoun “discovers” and introduces to Memphis via his first radio gig.
Ms. Boswell was Montego Glover‘s cover on Broadway since January of last year.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Montego Glover’s Tony-nominated performance in the Broadway production, there is something about Felicia Boswell’s performance in this first national tour that is more vulnerable, more entrancing, more spirited, more transcendent, more breathtaking, and more charismatic than Ms. Glover’s.
Ms. Boswell discovers and shares all of the vocal nuances and strengths of Felicia as she charms and hypnotizes us unmercifully from beginning to end.
Ms. Boswell’s Felicia is the journey of every African-American woman who experienced the trials and tribulations of the 50s.
With her head held high, she survives and triumphs over an attempt to beat her to death by white supremacists.
Ms. Boswell so brilliantly captures this scene with her exceptional acting that our hearts break and we weep with her at this all-too-common, embarrassing, and shameful moment in our not-too-distant American history.
The fact that Ms. Boswell is related to the great Rosa Parks, who is mentioned in Memphis, makes Felicia’s journey through the tumultuous 50s even more powerful, personal, and intricately transparent.
The gorgeous Felicia Boswell gives the quality of performance that we have come to expect from a well-seasoned actress at the top of her career and Ms. Boswell’s career is just taking off.
What momentous, astonishing, and legendary work we can expect from this rising star, Felicia Boswell, as she grows and matures into one of our greatest and brightest stars.
Ms. Boswell has what it takes to ascend the throne of super-stardom.
She owns the stage in her brilliant “Colored Woman” and her “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails” is pure genius.
The chemistry between Felicia and Huey is electrifying and potently palpable as they beautifully sing their first duet “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Kiss” and reprise it in the Act 2 after a reprise of “Love Will Stand.”
I will forever be touched by Felicia Boswell’s extraordinarily astonishing performance as Felicia in Memphis.
Brava, Ms. Boswell!
As if the two leads in Memphis are not powerful enough, every one of the supporting actors in Memphis knocks the ball out of the park.
Julie Johnson as Mama (Photo: Paul Kolnik)
The legendary, remarkable, and extraordinary Julie Johnson, as Huey’s mother, absolutely, completely, unabashedly, and spectacularly takes us to a higher place and steals Act 2 with her “come to Jesus” ballad, “Change Don’t Come Easy.”
The audience was screaming, shouting, and begging for more of her vocal gymnastics as she sensationally sells the song all the way to Ft. Worth!
Ms. Johnson is more than a brilliant songstress. Her phenomenal acting will astound you.
The handsome Kent Overshown is strong, stunning, and superb as Delray. His amazing vocals, particularly in “She’s My Sister,” are some of the most beautiful and profound in the show. His acting is stunning.
Rhett George reprises his role as charming Gator from the original Broadway production. From the minute he begins to speak and sing with the Act I closing “Say a Prayer,” Mr. George enchants and mesmerizes us.
Will Mann as the big and boyishly lovable Bobby sells his “Big Love” to the last row. His dance moves are deliciously charismatic, always cool, and he delivers some of the finest ensemble moments in Memphis.
William Parry is fiercely fine and quite memorable as Mr. Simmons, Huey’s boss at his first radio station.
The talented ensemble players beautifully and adeptly support Memphis, playing a myriad of smaller roles and dancing up a storm to Sergio Trujillo’s splendid, energizing, fresh, and joyful choreography.
Costume design by Paul Tazewell perfectly and stylishly captures the fabulous fifties with glorious colors and textures.
Scenic design by David Gallo is simple, effective, and always interesting. Particularly enchanting are the multiple levels he has created.
Lighting design by Howell Binkley is breathtakingly beautiful, magically enchanting, and ardently atmospheric.
Sound design by Ken Travis could have been better. The band’s volume could have been turned down a bit at times and the vocalists’ volume could have been upped. Often, lyrics could not be understood.
The Memphis Band, capably conducted from masterful keyboards by Alvin Hough, Jr., ravishingly rocks and rolls and rhythms and blues its soulful beat into the Music Hall.
I guarantee that you will be on your feet singing, clapping, and dancing to the beat of one of the best finales ever written for the stage, the catchy and fantastic finale of Memphis, “Steal Your Rock ‘n Roll.”
I give this exquisite production of Memphis my highest recommendation.
I believe you will find Memphis to be every bit as magnificent, mighty, and miraculous as I have.
Memphis runs at the Music Hall at Fair Park only through Sunday, May 27.
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