BWW Reviews: MEMPHIS Dazzles at Broadway San Jose
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by Linda Hodges and Nick Hodges
From the underground black dance clubs of 1950s Memphis, Tennessee to Broadway San Jose and the bay area comes a musical that bursts off the stage with explosive dancing, irresistible songs and a thrilling tale of fame and forbidden love. Winner of four 2010 Tony Awards including Best Musical – and loosely based on real-life DJ Dewy Phillips – Memphis tells of story of Huey Calhoun, the first DJ to play “race” music on a white radio station. Playing for a limited engagement now through October 28, Broadway San Jose’s Memphis will rock and roll your world. Hodges and Hodges were there to take it all in and report back to you about Memphis.
Nick, first thoughts?
Nick: We still need stories like Memphis. “Race relations” is still an issue in this country and having a reminder that it wasn’t so long ago that radio stations were segregated. It took brave pioneers to break the color divide in the 50s.
Linda: But this isn’t a show that hammers the message home in a heavy-handed way. Memphis’s message of change is infused with humor, pathos, absolutely amazing choreography and snappy tunes that make you want to jump out of your seat.
Nick: Absolutely. It’s no wonder that Memphis won the Tony for Best Musical. Joe DiPietro (Book and Lyrics) and David Bryan (Music and Lyrics) give us the indelible character of Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) said to be loosely based on DJ Dewey Phillips, one of the first to play “race” music in the 50’s.
Linda: We first meet Calhoun when he chances by Beale Street and hears the music bubbling up from an underground black club owned by Delray (Horace V. Rogers). Delray’s sister Felcia (the dazzling Felica Boswell) is singing and Huey is drawn down the stairs to hear more.
Nick: Bryan Fenkart plays Huey Calhoun with spot-on comedic timing. Illiterate and something of a hick, he goes through a lot of jobs until he finally finds his niche as a dare-devil DJ unafraid to play “the music of his soul” on white radio. Kenkart played each joke truthfully and let the realness of his emotions carry the joke and the audience loved it. His Tennessee accent was spot-on. He just really seemed to enjoy himself on stage throughout the performance.
Linda: Boswell’s Felicia was less believable to me when she wasn’t singing. Her speaking voice seemed caricatured and exaggerated but she certainly had the singing chops.
Nick: I thought she was an amazing actress! I enjoyed her presence and passion on the stage. During the powerful number “Colored Woman” she was putting all her emotions into her singing and acting talent and because of this I could feel what the number was about. I just couldn’t understand many of the words. It seemed inevitable that Huey and Felicia would fall in love.
Linda: It’s hard now to imagine a time when interracial dating was considered taboo. Other than the guys with the bats, Huey’s mama (Julie Johnson) is the most overtly racist character. But the change in her is amazing. Her arc in the show was very well done. And wow – can she sing!
Nick: Mama’s change from a racist, God-fearing woman to a mother trying her best to support her son in his “mixed” relationship was very moving. In the number “Change Don’t Come Easy” she surprised the entire audience with her powerful belting voice and exuberant, soulful sound. She really brought the house down. What did you think of the choreography?
Linda: Sergio Trujillo was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for his work on Memphis. He set the music and orchestrations (by Tony and Drama Desk winners Daryl Waters and David Bryan) in motion keeping the energy high and the kicks higher.
Nick: Set Designer David Gallo gave Memphis a marvelous set. The band was onstage the whole time. He highlighted them when appropriate then had them behind facades at other times. It was seamless.
Linda: It was a highly creative set. I loved the three singers in the giant spinning 45 record. During the TV show scenes do you think the cameras on stage were giving a live feed?
Nick: It looked like it. It was like you were watching it live in the studio audience in color and at home on your black and white television! Just astounding!
Linda: This talented cast and crew were directed by Christopher Ashley. Memphis is a show that has many high points that make you want to get up and dance, punctuated with moments that bring reality crashing down on you in a powerful way. From the white father slapping his daughter for dancing to Negro music, to Huey and Felicia getting jumped and beaten for following their hearts, Memphis doesn’t let you forget what a pioneering thing it was to play black music on white radio or to dare to love whomever you please.
Nick: Kind of sounds like today – for gay people.
Linda: Yes. And isn’t that a sad commentary.
Nick: All the more reason to see Memphis. This is definitely a show worth seeing.
Linda: Once again, Broadway San Jose has a hit on their hands! Get there to see Memphis before it leaves San Jose.