How did Memphis, the tuneful touring musical currently on stage at the Kennedy Center, end up winning a Tony for best musical in 2010? For starters, there are only so many American Theatre Wing voters who like punk rock and Afrobeat. Or, put another way, American Idiot and Fela! split the liberal vote. Memphis, with its original bluesy pop showtunes, was the conservative show left standing.
Which isn’t to say Memphis is a middling musical. It’s good—just not great. If you’re looking for easy-listening summer entertainment, particularly when the parents come to town, there is no better show. And while it isn’t a genre-busting song-and-dance fiesta like Fela! and lacks the eyeliner and impudence of Green Day’s American Idiot, Memphis does manage to break the musical mold in subtler ways.
Set in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Memphis is based on the true story of a Tennessee disc jockey who sets out to integrate the local rock ’n’ roll airwaves, one bop-schwoop-a-doo-bop at a time. In the musical, the character is called Huey Calhoun, and he’s the guy who has all the white teens in Memphis up and dancing and calling in requests to WHDZ. The station manager is flummoxed, but in it for the money. Huey expands his record collection by becoming a regular unwanted guest at Delray’s, an African American nightclub. There he meets and falls for Felicia Farrell, the proprietor’s sister, and makes a vow to get her music on the radio. He does, and soon that’s not the only vow they’re talking about.
But from the very first time he come sneaking down the stairs of Delray’s club, it’s apparent that Huey, played here by Bryan Fenkart, is not your average romantic lead. He’s a terrible dresser, he rarely stands up straight, and doesn’t have the best grammar. He is, as Delray sings, “a redneck son of a bitch.”
Felicia (Felicia Boswell) is out of his league. But in the pre-Civil Rights South, he’s supposed to be far out of hers. It’s a paradox that adds tension to the star-crossed romance. Anyone can see why Maria fell for Tony; it’s harder to see why Felicia falls for Huey. The audience will swoon for Boswell, however, particularly when she sings “Someday,” her character’s breakout radio hit. Overall, the cast is outstanding, and the ensemble dancing is strong. Usually, a touring cast like this might have one or two dancers who can turn double pirouettes. Memphis has six, and they can move in unison (more or less).
Good dancing is integral to the show’s transitions. Director Christopher Ashley smoothly overlaps scenes in ways that require just a touch of imagination from the audience. For example, when Huey tries selling 45s at a department store, he pops the record on the phonograph, and the fictional band he’s playing comes bopping onstage to sing “Scratch My Itch.” By Act 2, Huey’s radio show has graduated to local TV, which provides a convenient excuse to get the nine-piece band onstage.
As so often seems to be the case, amplified sound doesn’t sound so good in the Opera House. In an effort to keep the instruments from overpowering the singers, the live music ends up sounding muffled. As patrons filed out of the theater after Memphis, the band members stood as someone cranked up the volume. Suddenly, the place was jiving. It was a nice remember: 2010 was a crazy year at the Tony Awards, but the winning show was the one that sends you out humming.