I’ve never been a comic book junkie but when it comes to theater I’ve always had my own personal Fantastic Four. “Rent.” “Chicago.” “Dreamgirls.” “Wicked.” I’ve seen a lot of theater over the past several years. A LOT of theater. Most of it pretty good. But it’s never gotten better than those four for me. That is until I saw “Memphis” at the Ohio Theatre last night.
In Columbus on it’s Braodway tour until June 3, Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s “Memphis,” the story of radio DJ Huey Calhoun’s rise and fall from fame as the first white DJ to play “race music” in the 1950s, is hands down the best musical I’ve ever seen.
The show opens with Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) happening into a blue’s club and falling head over heels with the music and the club’s lead singer, Felicia (Felicia Boswell). Huey and Felicia’s love story takes a bumpy ride through history, all the while Huey uses his DJ career to promote the “Music of [His] Soul,” placing him and local R&B artists on the front lines of fame and racism in 1950s Memphis, Tennessee.
I have to admit I had s0me doubts going in. This 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical has a synopsis that reads like an unintentionally racist headline. “White man saves black music.” But much ado is given to the true originators of rock ‘n’ roll, the black southern blues musicians of the time period. And there’s no denying the stellar talent, music and choreography that makes this show breathtaking.
It’s been circulating among critics that the “Memphis” tour is even better than the Broadway original. And after perusing a dozen or so YouTube videos, I’m inclined to agree.
The ensemble is replete with powerhouse vocalists, led by Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell as star-crossed music lovers Huey and Felicia. Fenkart is charming in the bumbling idiocy of Huey, a poor kid who happens upon local fame. It’s his astounding vocal range and wide-eyed wonderment that keeps the show endearing. And Boswell is a ball of fierce tenacity that you can’t keep your eyes off of. Her first-act aria, “Colored Woman,” not only steals the show, but your heart as well.
Supporting players Quentin Earl Darrington (Delray, Felicia’s overprotective club-owner brother), Rhett George (Gator, “Delray’s” breakout bartender) and Will Mann (Bobby, radio station janitor turned Calhoun’s crowning co-host) also showed vocal prowess, especially George, who had much of the audience in tears after his leading moment in act-one closer “Say a Prayer.”
It’s the Tony-winning score, however, that makes “Memphis” a true delight. Blues, jazz, gospel and rock ‘n’ roll are all rolled into a host of feel good inspirational tunes. It definitely feels a lot like the message of “Hairspray” mixed with the soul of “Dreamgirls,” but keeps the energy at a high-octane level throughout.
Paul Tazewell’s Tony Award nominated costumes light up the stage with a distinct period finesse, while David Gallo (scenic design), Howell Binkley (lighting design) and Ken Travis (sound design) create a powerful audio visual experience that is goosebumps-inducing all its own.
If “Memphis” comes through your town, or anywhere near your town, you must indulge. It was this season’s must-see tour and you need to believe the hype.