MEMPHIS (National Tour)
Dallas Summer Musicals
Book by Joe DiPietro
Music by David Bryan,
Lyrics by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan
Based on a concept by George W. George
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Scenic Design by David Gallo
Costume Design by Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design by Howell Binkley
Sound Design by Ken Travis
Reviewed Performance: 5/15/2012
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Last week Green Day's Punk/Rock musical, American Idiot, opened at the Winspear Opera House while at the Music Hall the national tour of the musical Memphis had its opening night on Tuesday May 15. Like American Idiot, the score for Memphis was also composed by someone from the world of rock and roll. Both the music and lyrics were penned by David Bryan who happens to be the keyboard player & founding member of the hit making rock band Bon Jovi!
Both aforementioned productions were nominated for Best Musical along with Fela! and Million Dollar Quartet. Out of the four nominees, only one is still running on Broadway at the Shubert Theater - and that would be Memphis. In fact Memphis took home the Tony for Best Musical that season. It was nominated for eight Tony awards. They took back to the Shubert Theater not only the big one but also trophies for Best Score, Best Book, and Best Orchestration.
Currently the Broadway production is headlined by Adam Pascal (Tony Award nominee for originating the role of Roger in Rent & the role of Radames in Aida) and Montego Glover, who earned a Tony nod for portraying the role of Felecia. As of today Memphis is still packing them in at the Shubert.
Memphis was first produced in 2004 at the North Shore Music Theatre and then given a second try out run at TheatreWorks in Mountain View. It was again retooled and staged at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2008 which resulted in yet another out of town try out run at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle in 2009. It would finally arrive on Broadway on October 19th, 2009.
The original Broadway production was filmed in 2011 and was shown in movie cinemas all over the country. Now it has been given a national tour, which opened its Dallas run at the Musical Hall Tuesday evening.
The story and book is roughly based on Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips who was one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s. Only, in this story, the DJ is named Huey Calhoun. He is literally hypnotized by the soul, gospel, rhythm & blues genres of music created by black performers. Huey works at a department store and somehow finagles his way into not being fired by selling records instead. But instead of playing white music, he plays a black song. While he does sell a ton of records, he is fired.
Huey tries to find work and is finally hired at a radio station. Once again he breaks the rules. Instead of playing the station's white music, he plays black music. While the manager first freaks out having black music being played on his all white station, he can't ignore the sudden storm of teens calling in begging for them to play that music again. This causes Huey to crest on a meteoric rise in the station's ratings, listeners and advertisers who want to buy air time.
Huey also loves to go to a local nightclub called Delray's which caters only to African Americans, just so that he can savor the music, live. It is there he hears a girl, Felicia, singing. She becomes his muse and protege in making her a star. He also falls in love with her.
But this is not a simple love story, as the vile storm of racism and hatred circles around them, using all its power to destroy their sincere, deep love for each other. And it's not just society. Huey has to handle his mother's criticisms, while Felicia has her brother to contend with (he was whipped as a 14 year old boy for sipping at a "Whites Only" water fountain).
Joe Dipietro's book is sturdy, solid, and constructs a compelling yet often hilarious story which David Bryan's score beautifully encompasses. Dipietro does not shy away from the ugliness of racism but confronts it in a personal, moving and engrossing point of view. It is rare in today's musicals to have well-crafted books but Memphis has successfully achieved that task.
David Bryan's magnificent score is chockfull of outstanding songs, not just in the solos but for the group numbers as well. His score is saturated in the genres of rock and roll, gospel, rhythm and blues, hillbilly rock, and lots of soul. This score is like finding a golden ticket in a Willie Wonka Bar because in today's musical scores it is becoming a rarity to find full, complete, original musical scores. After so many recent musicals that use existing songs from movies or artist's past catalogues, to find a score that is memorable in today's musical theater world is a rare find indeed. There is not a lackluster composed song in the entire score. Each song has exquisite composition paying great homage to its genre.
Directing with a fine artistic tooth comb, Christopher Ashley keeps the pace moving on a soothing, emotional ride. He keeps the comedy real but also allows the harsh reality of racism to be fully exposed on stage. The staging and blocking has intent and reason. He is greatly aided with spectacular choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Using the actual dancing of the 1950s, he also paints a fresh new coat of artistic originality to the dance pieces. He creates the perfect melting of authentic dancing of that era and today's world of choreography with sizzling, vibrant, and dynamic movement. Several numbers just pop with exuberant choreography thanks to Trujillo. Both he and Ashley work as one in creating a fantastic production in both direction and choreography.
All three designers from the original Broadway production are on board with this tour. You have Howell Brinkley's dazzling lighting design and I confess, I am a sucker for a variety of colors, special gobos and moving lights in today's musicals. The use of just three or four basic colors with bland gels and no movement in light does not work anymore. Plus if you have a lame set, at least you have lots of color and movement in your lighting plot to hide it! Brinkley's sublime design is steeped in rich, detailed colors. For some of the solos he has spears of light that actually become brighter as the song crescendos.
David Gallo's set is almost a replication of the current Broadway version. The one major difference I noticed is that in New York the DJ booth came up from underneath the stage. Here it is brought in from the wings. But the rest of the set is like the one in New York. Two slim towers are used to create various scenes, from a department store, to a church, to Huey's home. Upstage is a walkway. He also has various backdrops, walls, and side pieces glide in and out to keep the story moving. He also uses live video feed when Huey gets his own local TV variety show, and also uses projections during one number to see Huey's rise to fame in the press.
After you see Memphis you will understand why Paul Tazewell earned a Tony nomination for his sumptuous, impeccable costume design. He must have buried himself under tons of research to make sure his costumes truly reflected the 1950s. The fabrics are an array of rich satins, silks, chiffons, and crepe. Many of the women's cocktail dresses are finely beaded or sequined. For Felicia, he even has her shoes match all her gowns, most of them with jewels encrusted on them. The men are tailored in tasteful suits, shirts, and ties. Tazewell had great fun in designing the zany, wild costumes for Huey. He uses bizarre patterns and fabrics to give great character subtext to Huey and show just how far out he "thinks out of the box" to society's conformity. But it's Felicia's costumes that are the cherry on top of this delicious dessert of costume confections. Her first cocktail dress is a rich, copper-tone gown dusted in glitter with a sprinkle
of sequins on the top. Another knock out is a dark, cranberry satin cocktail dress with endless rows of beads sewn all over it. Another elegant gown is made with yards of blush pink tulle, with a bejeweled bodice. Felicia also has one costume that will remind you of Effie White singing "I am Changing" from Dreamgirls!
The ensemble for this tour is flawless. Their vocals are robust, lush, and bring out all the musical brilliance the score contains. Their execution of the choreography is spotless, clean, in unison, and full of wonderful energy. I will always say that an ensemble is as important as the leads. I've seen some shows where the ensemble completely ruined the production because they all hogged the spotlight or tried to steal focus from the principals. And I've seen musicals where the ensemble was as interesting as sitting in the waiting room of a morgue because of the dead energy with no hint of commitment to the material. Not this ensemble! You can literally see these highly talented performers give it their all with their acting, singing and dancing.
There are several standouts within this fascinating company of performers that include Kent Overshown as Delray (Felicia's protective brother), Rhett George as the mute bartender Gator (who will leave you breathless in the first act finale), Will Mann as Bobby (who is hysterical!), and William Parry as the radio owner Mr. Simmons.
In my review of last week's production of American Idiot I mentioned the return of a Dallas native that was in that cast. Well, in yet one more ironic twist of fate, Memphis also happens to have a Dallas native in the company, Ms. Julie Johnson. This powerful force of talent has graced many stages all over the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. She has never once given a bad performance. She was seen just last season in the critically acclaimed production of Cabaret at the Dallas Theater Center (earning her a COLUMN Award nomination). I have said this before and I must state it again. It gives the DFW theater community such great pleasure, joy, and pride to see one of their own family members either on Broadway or in a national tour and Johnson does just that in Memphis.
Johnson portrays Huey's Mamma, a single mother working long hours at a diner, who's adult son is still living with her. Johnson delivers a scene-stealing performance from her first scene to her last. In a dialect that is simply dripping bitter Southern Belle, Johnson uses her first rate comedic talent to wring out laughs from every single line. Like the smart comedienne that she is, she layers her timing, pace and delivery with hilarious facial expressions. There are several scenes where she knows exactly where to put the "button" on a line or a pause to extract an avalanche of laughter. It is a shame that her role does not have more songs. In fact, she only has one major solo in the second act titled "Change Don't Come Easy". Johnson literally turns this gospel number into a show-stopping, scene-stealing solo that brings down the house! Johnson delivers a splendiferous performance.
The stars of Memphis are its two leads, Bryan Fenkart as Huey and Felicia Boswell as Felicia. Both come from the original Broadway production where they covered these two same roles. Their chemistry is sensual, erotic, sizzling, and bathed in realism. You honestly believe these two are deeply in love and can feel their uphill battle dealing with the harsh glare of racism that is creeping and slithering around them to destroy their relationship. They have several duets in the score that are major knockout hits. They sing with such heartfelt compassion and their gorgeous vocals are rewarded with thunderous applause and whistles from the audience.
Fenkart has a phenomenal talent for comedy. His timing, pace and delivery is hysterical and achieves some of the best laughs of the night. But when his character must confront the problems of his relationship with Felicia, his battle his battle to make her stay is grounded in truth and pain. Fenkart possesses a splendid tenor rock voice that nails each of his solos. His vibrato is clean and sturdy. All of his songs are crowd pleasers but his finest moment is in the blues/gospel-fused ballad "Memphis Lives in Me". Fenkart delivers an exceptional, extraordinary performance as the DJ who is wild, hyper, and zany but also has a big heart and soul that sees no skin color but only what is inside the person.
Ms. Boswell matches Fenkart perfectly. She is such a gorgeous looking woman that when she first walks on stage she takes your breath away. Like her co-star, she too has an excellent sense of comedic timing and delivery. She gains great laughs in many of her scenes. But then there's that voice! Pure, sparkling liquid gold pours from this girl's lungs when she sings. The songs written for this role can easily be over sung with those hideous Mariah Carey vocal riffs and runs you hear on American Idol or The Voice. Boswell instinctively knows where to add just the right amount of riffs & runs within her gospel or soul numbers. And when she does, she burns the house down with her superior soprano voice. She has so many great solos it is impossible to pick which one is my favorite because every number she does is a show stopper!
But then come her scenes where the dramatic elements are brought into her characterization. Boswell digs deep into the subtext to make the audience feel the sting, both verbal and physical, of the evilness of racism. What happens to her towards the end of Act One is horrific, but you observe how she uses her body, voice and acting to make the audience see firsthand the end result at the hands of racists. It will tear your heart to pieces. Ms. Boswell delivers a miraculous performance.
After watching Memphis Tuesday night, it gives me great hope that the future of original musicals is not dead. That there still can be musicals not based on movies or TV shows. That it's scores are not already composed because the creators are using the music catalogs of past artists, i.e. the jukebox musical. Memphis is fresh, new, and above all a great story with an unparalleled, remarkable musical score. Memphis is a show that you must see. It shows that the creation of new musicals can still be achieved and succeed! Now, buy a ticket to Memphis and go to the Music Hall; you will not only walk out humming the score (when was the last time you did that walking out of a show!?), but you'll shout "Huckadoo!" as Huey does in the show!
Dallas Summer Musicals
Music Hall at Fair Park
909 First Avenue
Dallas, TX 75210
Runs through May 27th
Performances are Tuesday - Saturday at 8:00 pm and Saturday - Sunday at 2:00 pm.
There is an added performance Sunday, May 20th at 8:00 pm and Thursday, May 24th at 2:00 pm
Single tickets are $15.00-$75.00 and can be purchased online at www.dallassummermusicals.org.
They can also be purchased at The Box Office, 5959 Royal Lane, in the Preston/Royal Shopping Center. Tickets are also available by calling Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000 or going online to www.ticketmaster.com. For groups of 10 or more, please call 214-426-GROUP.