The charismatic characterizations and invigorating vocals of Bryan Fenkart, Felicia Boswell, and Kent Overshown pump up the volume of the exuberant National Tour of Memphis, much to the delight of Durham Performing Arts Center patrons attending the show’s eight performances on Jan. 24-29 in the Bull City.
Bryan Fenkart is a pistol as Huey, the admittedly illiterate, self-described redneck from the title city whose impossible dream is to become the top-rated local radio-station disc jockey and a wealthy rhythm-and-blues impresario. Huey wants to play race records on formerly lily-white radio stations and stage concerts for white teenagers and young adults, featuring all African-American artists heretofore limited to strutting their stuff for all-black audiences in underground clubs on Beale Street.
Felicia Boswell is delightful as Felicia Farrell, the beautiful black diva who rocks Huey’s world with her vibrant vocals. They conduct their forbidden love affair in secret, while the irrepressible Huey and his musical cohorts help midwife the birth of rock-and-roll in Memphis in the early 1950s.
Huey wants to be the Johnny Appleseed of the new musical form, which one black character astutely characterizes as black gospel music speeded up. Meanwhile, Felicia bridles at being a Backstreet Girl that Huey keeps trying to drag into the spotlight, where they would become targets of vicious verbal abuse and murderous baseball-bat-wielding thugs.
Delray understudy Kent Overshown, subbing for Quentin Earl Darrington, makes a quite a favorable impression as Felicia’s overprotective brother, who runs an underground club and is none too happy when Huey crosses the color line. Will Mann provides some comic relief — and a robust rendition of “Big Love” — as big, burly Bobby, a bouncer at Delray’s club who also has music in his soul.
Rhett George delivers a poignant performance as Gator, a mute since his father’s lynching who rediscovers his voice (“Say a Prayer”) when the bickering between Huey and Delray reaches the boiling point; William Parry is a pip as Huey’s boss, hopelessly square Memphis radio station co-owner Mr. Simmons; and Julie Johnson is a caution as Huey’s rough-as-a-cob widowed mama Gladys, who deplores Huey’s race-mixing endeavors and abhors Huey’s infatuation with Felicia. Felicia’s brother Delray is equally appalled at the prospect that his sister might marry a white man, an act that was still illegal in Tennessee at that time.
Snappy musical staging by director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Sergio Trujillo propels the presentation higher and higher, and musical director Alvin Hough, Jr. and music supervisor Christopher Jahnke and the Memphis orchestra smoothly segue from R&B to gospel to good old-time rock-and-roll.
On Tuesday night, Memphis had the joint jumping from the get-go. Tolerance and racial reconciliation are the twin themes of this rock-and-roll message musical, inspired by the life and career of real-life Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips (1926-68), a.k.a. “Daddy-O-Dewey,” who was a pioneer in integrating the nation’s radio broadcasts from 1948 to 1958. DPAC patrons are in for a real treat.
SECOND OPINION: Jan. 26th Raleigh, NC NBC 17 “My Carolina Today” interview with Bryan Fenkart etc.: http://www2.nbc17.com/lifestyles/my-carolina-today/2012/jan/26/memphis-comes-dpac-vi-40106/; Jan. 26th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/01/26/1806669/strong-voices-lift-memphis.html; Jan. 25th Burlington, NC Teens & Twenties review by Lincoln Pennington: http://teensandtwenties.com/crowd-pleasing-memphis-delights-in-durham/; Jan. 25th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com blog by Kathy Hanrahan: http://www.wral.com/entertainment/out_and_about/blogpost/10641090/; and Jan. 18th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/17216198/article-Black-and-white-music-of-‘Memphis’-? (Note: You must register first to read this article).
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents MEMPHIS at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26, 8 p.m. Jan. 27, 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 28, and 1 and 6:30 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 29 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $42.50-$79.75 (including fees).
DPAC Box Office: 919/680-ARTS (2787) or http://www.dpacnc.com/events/how_to_buy_tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/1551056/.
The Musical: http://www.memphisthemusical.com/ (official website), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memphis_(musical) (Wikipedia), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memphis_(musical) (Internet Broadway Database).
The Tour: http://s365859168.onlinehome.us/ (official website).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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