It was certainly interesting timing. Just as the original production of MEMPHIS—the winner of the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical—was only a few days away from closing its doors for its final weekend on Broadway, the musical's top-notch national touring company was making its much lauded Los Angeles debut at the Pantages Theatre amidst hearty laughs and deafening cheers.
Genuinely entertaining and impressively cast, the show's two-week engagement, which ends August 12, brought Southern California a great example of how exciting live musical theater performances can truly get when handed to a really talented, musically-gifted cast.
While overly melodramatic and a bit clichéd in its treatment of race relations set in the turbulent, separatist Old South of the 50's, MEMPHIS, overall, is a rousing, surprisingly funny, and electrically-charged show that rightfully triumphs because of its slick production values and its incredible, undeniable musicality. Though engaging than most other shows that straddle that fine line between humor and history lesson, much of its story is glazed over with curious generalizations and a generous helping of molasses-covered charm that smacks a bit of "been there, seen that." That charm, though, has its way of winning you over.
But, be that as it may, if you want to hear some honest-to-goodness, kick-ass singing, then you must see this show... now! A high-voltage mash-up of soulful doo-wop, vintage rock, and gospel-tinged rhythm and blues, MEMPHIS populates itself with a cavalcade of likable, catchy songs—penned by Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan—sung by an ensemble of triple-threat performers that are so insanely good, you'll want to keep coming back just to see what kind of new runs and riffs they'll be vocalizing on a different night.
The show's forward-sounding score is paired with a familiar-sounding narrative that traces the meteoric rise of a loud-mouth ne'er-do-well country boy named Huey Calhoun (the incredible Bryan Fenkart) who, despite a wild and often rule-breaking persona, manages to land an on-air job as a local radio DJ playing—uh oh—"race music" (which a character, hilariously, further describes as "church + gin + soul"). He soon becomes famous (or, rather, infamous), both to the delight of young white folks now exposed to R&B tunes, and to the disdain of older white folks who frown upon race-mixing.
But, as expected, Huey's passion for Black soulful melodies—and his oh-so-taboo love for Felicia, a drop-dead gorgeous underground jook-joint chanteuse (the outstanding Felicia Boswell) who just happens to be African-American—leads most of his life's decisions, causing both good and bad consequences all around. In between wit-laced jokes and racial epithets, careers are made and broken, hearts are lifted then crushed, violence erupts, tears are shed, taboos are shattered, and lots of amazing, red-hot musical numbers are sung.
While some might grumble that the show is yet another example of a (fictional) account of a Caucasian trailblazer swooping in as a hero to the rescue of minorities, it's hard not to fall for the show's almost soap-ey/comic/kumbaya approach to such a sensitive subject. And, dang, those excellent musical performances really do try their best to distract you from all these lesser traits. (In addition, of course, the show all but pummels you on the head with its present-day parallels to current political debates that mirror the 1950's-era shock over two people from different ethnic backgrounds wanting to get married).
Extraordinarily entertaining in many ways, MEMPHIS—which got its start right here in Southern California at the La Jolla Playhouse—gets most of its electric charge from its gifted tour cast, all of whom are astonishing singer/dancers. Fenkart and Boswell handily command this show, and both are mesmerizing with each appearance.
Fenkart's take on Huey feels much more down-home than Tony nominee Chad Kimball's origination, utilizing a charming, deep-country-fried drawl that sounds very much like Mater from Pixar's Cars movies—only a lot more hyper and caffeinated. He's got such impeccable comic timing that some of the show's narrative flaws somehow melt magically away.