Review: Memphis (Dancap)

Dancap presents the Canadian premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical Memphis at the Toronto Centre for the Arts through December 24, 2011.

The pre-Civil Rights Era in the deep south of the United States seems so far removed from our reality today in cosmopolitan, ethnically diverse Toronto. Memphis in the ‘50s was deeply racially divided and that segregation extended beyond separate bathrooms and public seating areas.

Even the radio dial was segregated with easily accessible centre-of-the-dial stations dedicated to “white” music, and “black” radio stations relegated to the often-distorted fringes of the dial. This was a time before artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley made a name for themselves by appropriating “black music” and popularizing it to white America.

Memphis is set in the eponymous Tennessee town at the dawn of the rock ‘n’ roll era and feels sort of like Dreamgirls meets Jersey Boys. It’s the story of a young white radio DJ, Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), who discovers a passion for “black” music in the underground clubs of Memphis – rhythm and blues, soul and gospel, and is determined to bring this music to the mainstream. Along the way he also discovers and subsequently falls in love with a talented young African-American club singer named Felicia (Felicia Boswell).

The score by David Bryan (a founding member of the band Bon Jovi) is infused with the styles of music at the dawn of the rock era in the southern US; rockabilly, boogie woogie, country-western, soul, gospel and rhythm and blues. If you’re at all a fan of these styles you’ll likely love Memphis.

The cast and band sound phenomenal, they perform the music with the kind of soul it needs to be completely credible. My show-going companion Tara loved the fact that every lead and supporting character was a vocal knockout. The standout for both of us was Felicia Boswell. She’s a powerhouse who can blow the roof off the theatre but she’s also very capable of tempering that power to deliver the softer, more melodic material.

The cast’s vocal prowess is equally matched by their awesome physicality. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is bold and acrobatic. He really taps in to the rhythm of the show and his dynamic musical staging gives Memphis a great sense of flow.

Writer Joe DiPietro really strives for a believable depiction of an interracial relationship in the pre-civil rights era. I also like the fact that his characters are well-rounded; Huey is by no means a hero, in fact he’s deeply flawed in many ways but just quirky enough to be endearing.

Even the supporting characters are written with some depth; it would have been so easy to turn Felicia’s over-protective brother Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington) or Huey’s initially intolerant mother (Julie Johnson) into one-dimensional villains but they are balanced and ultimately sympathetic.

I also thought DiPietro’s handling of the hate and discrimination prevalent in the era was well-balanced. Luckily, the kind of blatant hatred against people of colour is a lot less prevalent nowadays. I found it interesting that the first time the N-word was used in the show it came as such a shock that the audience let out a collective, audible gasp, as if they’d forgotten how truly ugly bigotry can be.

Huey breaks down barriers by using the radio to expose a new generation of white kids to black music but change can’t seem to come fast enough. Even though the story takes place in the ‘50s it’s still very relevant today.

I couldn’t help but see so many direct parallels between Huey and Felicia’s forbidden interracial relationship and struggles that same-sex couples still face today; their relationship is banned by the state, they have to hide the fact that they’re lovers, they can’t hold hands or kiss in public, they are lynched by hateful bigots and have to escape to the north to get married. All of it still cuts very close to home.

Given the continued struggles for equal marriage today and emergent social media technologies enabling transformative social and political change around the world, maybe it’s not so hard to relate to a story of love as an act of defiance against an intolerant society and using a technological medium to unite people and break down barriers.

Nowadays, when so much commercial theatre is so utterly derivative; jukebox musicals, tribute shows, “based on the hit movie” shows and revivals of decades-old Broadway hits, it’s refreshing to see a hit Broadway musical that features an original book and original music.

As the opening night audience that gave the show an instant standing ovation will attest, Memphis is an exuberant juggernaut with energy, heart, soul and social relevance.

Details:

  • Memphis is playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge Street) through December 24, 2011
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30PM and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00PM, matinees on certain other days, check the schedule on the website
  • Tickets $49 to $69
  • Tickets are available by phone 416.644.3665 , in person at the box office or visit www.dancaptickets.com

Photo credit:

  • Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart in MEMPHIS – photo by Paul Kolnik