I was really looking forward to opening night of Memphis at the Musical Hall at Fair Park in Dallas. The four time Tony Award Winner (including 2010's Best Musical) was lauded as Broadway at its' best. I was cautious with my enthusiasm, as last time I was this excited about a show was Young Frankenstein The Musical and it was a monster. Memphis however lives up to the hype. With a cast featuring some of the Broadway cast Memphis not only doesn't disappoint it exceeded my wildest expectations.
Loosely based on Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips Memphis tells the story of a bold yet complicated man. Huey (the character based on Phillips) is one of the first white DJ's to play R&B music in the 50's and as you can imagine he was resisted at every turn. One thing that has not changed in the 60 years since this story took place is the greed of business owners. Huey's crazy freeform style and high energy R&B sound are an instant hit taking him to the top spot in the local ratings. This leads station owner to ignore all criticism and embrace and support the young DJ as long as the money was flowing and he didn't go to far, which of course eventually he does.
Intertwined with the story of Huey's rise of fame and ego is his love of R&B Music and specifically R&B singer Felicia who initially rejects his affections. Not to be deterred, in an attempt to win over the singer, Huey promises to get the amazing Felicia heard on the radio. In this era radio played a much bigger role in music and Huey promises the young diva radio play in exchange for a kiss. In this time Huey was not even wanted in the African American Club she sang in, much less as the man in her life. The parallel between the struggle then and the current struggle for marriage equality is stunning.
Felicia Boswell & Bryan-Fenkart in Memphis
Huey keeps his word and the relationship develops much to the dismay of everyone else involved, none more than Felicia's brother and Huey's mother who forge an unusual alliance with their absolute disdain for the bond between the two.
The cast shines. Julie Johnson as Mama does what I love best in Musicals. She plays a demure character, even dowdy. She leads you to expect maybe a nice ballad from her later in the show but when you least expect it knock you out of your seat belting out a number that you only expected from the diva lead. When Mama visits Felicia's Church and belts out “Make Me Stronger” backed by a full gospel choir there was a hush over the audience. Her epiphany at the church leads to another knock out from Johnson in the second act “Change Don't Come Easy.
Julie Johnson as Mama has an epiphany
Brian Fenkart as Huey is perfect. He opened a window into the life of a man who as many in show business do walk a fine line between their ego and their insecurity. Either way it often ends bad. The two collide and Huey finally goes to far. With one selfish act he destroys himself and almost Felicia. Fenkart walks the line between the greatness and insecurity of this character seamlessly. The real Phillips excessive use of drugs and alcohol lead to his death at 42.
Far and away the star of this incredible cast is Felicia Boswell as Felicia Farrell. This amazing singer/Actress played this role on Broadway and it shows. Her voice is transcendence.
The Amazing Felicia-Boswell-photo by Paul Kolnik
With an incredible cast, music and choreography Memphis brings Broadways best to Dallas this week. Memphis will certainly long be considered one of the greatest Broadway shows in History.
Memphis plays the Dallas Summer Musicals through May 27th. Tickets are $20-$75 and available at Ticketmaster.
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