Boy meets girl—a beautiful girl who sings the music he loves best. It sounds like a classic setup, the opener for a toe-tapping musical with the promise of happily-ever-after. But when the boy is white, the girl is black, and the setting is 1950s Memphis, Tennessee…it's complicated.
A surprisingly real romance lies at the beating heart of the musical Memphis, brought to life by an electric and fine-tuned national touring company at Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth. Winner of the Tony Awards trifecta for 2010 (Best Musical, Book and Score), Memphis isn't just another jukebox tribute to yesterday's great hits. With a funny, edgy book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change) and original songs by Bon Jovi keyboard veteran David Bryan (The Toxic Avenger) this is a story that moves on a nonstop wave of brand-new music that sounds vintage, the kind of music that, as one song says, "tears you up but sets you free." And adding to the noisy, funky good times is the gift of Sergio Trujillo's (Jersey Boys) galvanizing choreography.
This ensemble of dancers and singers may have been on the road for months, but they are still bringing it—to everything from smoking hot Delta blues numbers to "nonstop be-bop do-wop."
Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) is a small-time Memphis deejay with a passion for the music of black Delta blues artists, and the "speeded up" version they call rock 'n' roll. Felicia Farrell (Felicia Boswell) is a singer in a Beale Street bar owned by her protective brother. Huey wants to bring "race music" to white listeners, and he'd love to put Felicia on the radio. She'd like it, too. But in a world of "white only" labels that apply to everything from schools to drinking fountains to radio programming, she knows the odds are against her.
Today's crosspollinated music scene makes it hard to remember how different life was back in the day, when black and white singers (and audiences) often moved in separate, segregated worlds. But in Memphis and other American cities, change was coming—and to history's surprise, deejays like Huey (based in part on a Memphis radio jock named Dewey Phillips), black and white musicians trading guitar licks and creating new musical hybrids, and teens roaming the radio dial for the "sound" they craved would be prime movers in that social revolution.
Director Christopher Ashley keeps a light hand on the action, letting us fly around Memphis and forward through the 1950s as the characters find their futures. It's fun to remember that among the fictional Huey's teen radio listeners was a young Memphis hottie by the name of Elvis.
As Huey, Fenkart brings all the character's goofy sweetness and fools-rush-in passion to life. Whether he's converting the customers of a quiet department store into raving rock fans, using his "crazy cracker" persona to get on the radio, or bluffing his way through an on-air commercial he can't read, Huey is so sure that what he wants will happen—and for a while it does. But while Huey can charm his way to high ratings, record sales and local fame, he can't change Memphis fast enough for him and Felicia. Felicia Boswell (yes, she shares her character's name) is terrific as a girl whose big dreams are shadowed by the fear that for "a colored woman" aiming too high can be dangerous. Alternately tough and tender, she loves Huey, but knows he's blind to the problems and dangers of their relationship. Both are flat-out terrific singers and bring a sweet sizzle to their love story.
This is a deep-bench supporting cast as well. Local favorite Julie Johnson (Always...Patsy Cline, Broadway's Candide) blows out the walls with her bravura turn as Huey's Mama, whose close encounter with an African-American church choir and preacher leads to a hard-won conversion on race ("Change Don't Come Easy"). When Mama testifies, they hear it in the next county. Horace V. Rogers, Rhett George, Will Mann and Kent Overshown each have a telling and surprising solo, and Broadway veteran actor William Parry is acidly funny as Huey's boss, overjoyed that "I'm gonna make me a shitload of money!" programming black singers on his radio station.
Asked in a recent interview what attracted him to this musical era, composer David Bryan said he loved "how much joy and hope there was" in the songs. Memphis is a story about the kind of music that changes lives and breaks down barriers—and leaves us all standing on some common ground that wasn't there before.