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That 'Memphis' Beat Brings Audience to Its Feet

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Loosely based on the story of real-life radio DJ Dewey Phillips, who was among the first few white disc jockeys to play black music on the radio in 1950s Memphis, the musical Memphis takes a look at "the birth of rock 'n' roll" in showstopping fashion.

Memphis opened on Broadway in late 2009 and went on to win four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2010. A National Tour began in October 2011, and just months later it arrived at the MSU Wharton Center for a one-week engagement.

 Performances continue through Sunday, April 1st. For ticket information, click here to visit the MSU Wharton Center website.


In a time when original Broadway musicals are difficult to come by, Memphis is a breath of fresh air in a sea of revivals and adaptations.

Memphis is the story of Huey Calhoun, a bumbling bumpkin of a guy with his own drawl and style, who is drawn into the music scene of Delray's rock and roll bar. The voice that draws him in belongs to Felicia Farrell, a songbird destined to become a star - if only the local white stations would play her music.

Memphis follows the love Huey has not only for the music so unlike anything white artists are producing, but the forbidden love for Felicia. Whether it's Felicia's brother Delray - played by the stoic Quentin Earl Darrington, Huey's mama Gladys, or strangers on the streets of Memphis, the disapproval of their budding, interracial relationship drives a wedge between them.

Each member of the National Tour cast makes their mark on the stage. Bryan Fenkart transforms into Huey - from every knee snap to his hundred miles an hour dialogue while working it as a disc jockey, Fenkart makes the character evolve from a lovable but naive optimist to just plain lovable.

Felicia Boswell as Felicia Farrell - how's that for destiny - is a spitfire from the moment she arrives on stage, making it known from the start that she is a star. The audience can sense how torn she is by wanting to be with the one she loves, but allows fear to cripple her. From her sweet ballads on the radio to taking over Delray's bar with that rhythm and blues, Boswell gives her all.

In many instances throughout the show, the audience couldn't help but break out in applause before songs were over. Julie Johnson tears it up as Huey's mama Gladys on "Change Don't Come Easy" - Johnson throws herself into the role and allows this moment to be when Gladys unleashes her preoccupations and lets the music take control.

Rhett George as Gator and Will Mann as Bobby also won over the audience, the former with his booming voice and the latter with his one-liners and dance moves. Not to spoil part of the story, but the audience hears Gator's voice for the first time in "Say a Prayer", the last song of Act I. Rhett George's vocal ability in sustaining full-bodied, piercing notes completely takes the audience off guard. It's a goosebump-inducing moment that carries through the intermission.

Will Mann as Bobby brings the house down on "Big Love", a no guts-no glory performance when he is a last-minute replacement for Felicia, who backs out of performing on Huey's show.

The small number of cast members allows each to shine on stage.

The show's strengths lie in its foot-tapping rhythm and blues soundtrack, vibrant choreography and set design, and especially its heart-wrenching look at racism in 1950s Tennessee.

While seeing a young white girl get smacked by her father for listening to black music and hearing racial terms spoken nonchalantly is jarring for the audience, these moments provide only a small taste of the tension that filled the era.

And in some cases, many of the themes in the show are still relevant today, whether it involves race, culture, or sexuality.

 

By the end of Memphis, the audience was brought to its feet before the first notes of the curtain call. 

If you're looking for a rocking, at times hilarious and at other times heartbreaking musical, look no further than a night in Memphis.

 

 

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