Book & Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music & Lyrics by David Bryan
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Musical production by Christopher Jahnke
Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Performed by Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell et al.
Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto
December 6 to 24, 2011
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
In the Centre of the Radio Dial
Even though it’s based on a true story of a Memphis disc jockey in the 1950s, the musical Memphis is truly original. The high energy cast, witty dialogue and music combining rhythm and blues and rock and roll make it easy to see why the show won the Best Musical Tony award on Broadway in 2010.
Currently playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, the show is selling out quickly to very appreciative audiences.
The story starts with Huey Calhoun (based on real life DJ Dewey Phillips) visiting an all-black night club, where he’s not welcome. Huey, enjoying the music, becomes a regular and some of the patrons and staff learn to trust him. Huey finagles a job as a radio DJ, and plays the back music, scandalizing his employer. But they soon learn that the young whites love the “race” music and Huey’s program, in the centre of the radio dial, becomes very popular, with his nonsensical catch-phrase “Hockadoo!”
Huey falls in love with a beautiful black singer, Felicia, and fulfills his promise of getting her voice on the radio. But she is beaten by white vigilantes for being seen with a white man, their relationship going against the norms and even the laws of the day. Huey hosts a TV show with all black dancers – and he is given the chance to have a national program if he drops his dancers and changes to white dancers. But Huey remains loyal to his cast, and also to his city, singing about his love of Memphis. In the meantime, Felicia’s popularity grows and she moves to New York for a recording deal. Huey refuses to go with her, even though they could be open about their relationship if the lived in the north.
A love story fraught with prejudice and racism is developed through the use of music and we are living the creation of rock and roll. “Rock and roll is just Negro blues sped up,” we are told.
Bryan Fenkart is very good as Huey. We travel the journey with him, starting as a young idealist who refuses to see colour differences, to his coming of age and coming back even after the harsh reality beats him down.
Felicia Boswell is excellent as Felicia. She has a rich, powerful voice and the variety of songs – rhythm and blues, gospel, ballad and rock – allows her to show off her impressive range.
The audience loves Julie Johnson who plays Huey’s mother with attitude. Her powerful voice offered great emotion.
The script is written by Joe DiPietro, known for his humour in plays such as Over the River and Through the Woods, and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. His witticisms are evident throughout Memphis, but he also knows how to pull our heartstrings with the doomed, cross-race love story.
The vocals and dance are excellent, the story is well-told and it is easy to see how this show took the best musical Tony. Certainly well worth the trip to Toronto, or even New York.
Memphis continues at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (formerly the North York Centre), which is easy to find – just a few blocks north of the 401 on Yonge Street. There’s underground parking as well as a parking lot in back. For tickets, call Dancap at 416-644-3665 or go online to www.dancaptickets.com.