The touring production of the 2010 Tony Award-winning musical Memphis boasts a memorable score, a compelling story line, and an absolutely stellar cast of actors.
In the still-segregated Memphis of the 1950s, Huey Calhoun (played by Bryan Fenkart) dreams of changing the world one song at a time. His passion for R&B draws him to the all-black Beale Street Club where local singer Felicia (Felicia Boswell) headlines each evening. Though the club’s regulars are suspicious and initially hesitant about welcoming a white man into their midst, Huey slowly starts to win them over through his honest appreciation of their music.
Utter determination propels Huey from stock-boy at a local store to the top-rated DJ on a popular Memphis radio station. He makes good on his promise to air Felicia’s album on the all-white channel, and soon, the city’s young people are clamoring for more “race records,” embracing not only rhythm and blues, but gospel, jazz, and, eventually, their African-American neighbors. Despite Huey’s successes – and his budding romance with Felicia – such rapid social changes daringly and dangerously upset the racial status quo of his times, and the threat of retaliation looms ominously over the characters as the story unfolds.
Fenkart is a talented triple threat. He excels as a singer, dancer and actor, and he deserves special recognition for his sheer endurance. Huey appears onstage for almost the entire production, and Fenkart’s energy levels never wane during the marathon-level performance.
Boswell possesses a magnificent singing voice and she has ample opportunity to demonstrate this remarkable instrument as Felicia. In addition to her powerhouse vocals, Boswell runs the gamut as an actor, from professional satisfaction to personal terror to a broken heart.
Fenkart and Boswell shine in their scenes together. Their earliest interactions – he adorably bumbling, she poised and sophisticated – steadily build their romance from flirtatious attraction to a deeper, more abiding connection. The two performers commendably mature Huey and Felicia as the decade progresses, making subtle adjustments to their performances that temper and refine the characters through their experiences.
Rhett George plays Beale Street Club’s bartender, Gator, and he well-represents his character’s tragic background while bringing charm and laughter to the role. George absolutely brings down house in the first act’s fraught closing number “Say a Prayer.”
Will Mann stands out as the endearing and hopeful Bobby, demonstrating skill as both a vocalist and a dancer. Horace V. Rogers displays great affection as Delray, Felicia’s older brother; Rogers gives Delray an air of quiet intensity in all of his scenes.
Memphis’ set design provides a sense of time and place, but also establishes music as the show’s prominent theme. When Huey plays his first song on the radio, the backdrop above the sound booth transforms into a spinning 45 record with the album’s artists singing and dancing in its center. Huey’s radio success leads to a television program, and a projection screen above the performers displays “live” footage from various angles as the performers entertain Memphis audiences.
The story line and characterizations are complete, profound, and presented with a discernible authenticity. Memphis is fiction steeped in historical fact, allowing the production’s high-energy song-and-dance numbers to develop organically from that reality. This realism, along with Memphis’ celebration of music, picks up immediately at the show’s start and continues right through to the curtain call.
See Memphis at the Providence Performing Arts Center through December 9, 2012. Tickets are available online at www.ppacri.org, by phone (401) 421-ARTS (2787), or by visiting the box office at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI. Ticket prices range from $46-$73; contact the box office for information on discounted rates for groups of 20 or more.
Pictured: Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart
Photo by Paul Kolnik