In the 1950′s, when segregation was far from over, rhythm and blues and the presence of radio music united people of all races, backgrounds and beliefs. The musical “Memphis” brought a little bit of bravery and lot of soulful music to its performances at the ASU Grady Gammage this week.
“Memphis” won the Tony award for best musical in 2010, not just for its underlying message of racial discrimination, but for its buoyantly powerful music and characters burning for a change.
Disc jockey Huey Calhoun, delightfully portrayed by Bryan Fenkart, overhears a nightclub singer and rushes “Underground” to meet the people inside. Huey finds himself longing to broadcast this “negro music” on the local Memphis radio station, naïve to the fact that this would cause a lot more problems than a bad-selling record.
The expression, “she has the voice of an angel” means nothing until you hear the star of Huey’s hit radio show — not to mention his lover — Felicia (played by Felicia Boswell). Her performance was a splendid combination of a younger Whitney Houston and every character from “Dreamgirls.” Boswell performed several strong ballads throughout the show (“Someday,” “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails”) that makes one ask how she could possibly keep her voice that solid and powerful night after night.
“Memphis” was a steep roller coaster of events: First Huey makes it to the number one radio spot, then Felicia gets the brunt of it from the “unhappy white folks,” then she gets a record deal, then Huey goes a little crazy when he’s not offered the same award. While each scene contributes to the ending, it’s a plot killer when the audience knows something good is about to happen, because something bad just did.
What is surprisingly great about this musical is that the cheesy lines and innocent songs don’t give any hint to the show’s ending. Two lovers, despite the obstacles society places before them, live happily ever after. A joyful song follows and then the bows start. “Memphis,” however, offers its own, unexpected happy ending, with a light-hearted, put-your-hands-above-your-head-and-praise-the-sky melody.
The audience didn’t even wait until the end of the closing number, “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll” to stand up and applause the extremely talented cast. After a high note from Boswell, remaining in your seats becomes a hopeless feat.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @MariaKThompson.