Christina Wright

Fun show, serious message

The Marcus Center hosts an insightful and entertaining look at race relations in the 1950s, through the love story of a white DJ and a black club singer.

By - Jan 9th, 2013 01:27 pm

Young R&B singer Felicia (Felicia Boswell, C), alongside her brother Delray (portrayed here by Quentin Earl Darrington, L), seeks a path to stardom in “Memphis.” Photo credit Paul Kolnik.

Memphis, the Broadway hit and Tony award-winning musical by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, is a show about race, race relations, and racism, but—not to worry—this serious subject is discussed with humor, infectious songs, eye-catching dancing, and creative sets.

The story, set in 1950s, segregated Memphis, Tennessee, is a tale about Huey, a white radio DJ, and Felicia, a black R&B singer, who fall in love while seeking to bring the music of the underground black clubs to mainstream radio and TV stations. The show opens with a simple silver radio DJ booth on an otherwise empty stage. In it, we see a boring white radio DJ playing a somnolent “rhythm and blues” song. There’s a flash of light and he’s replaced by an energetic black DJ who spins a true R&B record from the underground black clubs, leading into the first great musical number of the show, “Underground.”

Underground is where Huey (Bryan Fenkart) and Felicia (Felicia Boswell) first meet. Felicia’s brother, Delray (Horace V. Rogers), wants to know why this goofy white guy has decided to hang out in his club—Huey’s clearly not welcome “down, down, down underground,” as the lyrics go.

Then we’re treated to the next catchy song, a bluesy number called “The Music of My Soul,” Huey’s first song. While the show is incredibly fun, Memphis doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of racism, and that’s apparent in the lyrics of “The Music of My Soul”: “When I was a young boy, my daddy sat me down. He said, ‘Son, don’t you never go to the dark side of town’…The only thing my daddy taught was white should stay with white.”

Fenkart and Boswell are a fantastic duo. Fenkart embodies Huey’s silly nature, wearing a costume of mismatched clothes and bounding about the stage. Boswell is elegant and refined, dressed in smart ensembles and beautifully beaded dresses. Both actors kill it vocally. Fenkart’s voice is a combination of country and rock & roll, which is fitting since he is also a recording artist. Boswell is full-on R&B and her range is remarkable. She’s a mixture of Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae and Aretha Franklin.

The rest of the cast packs a vocal punch, too. At the end of the first act, we’re stunned by the song “Say a Prayer,” the stirring solo sung by quiet bartender, Gator (Rhett George). Another stand-out is Bobby (Will Mann), the janitor-turned-singer who becomes a TV star. Mann is a larger guy and his Little Richard-esque solo number,”Big Love,” assures everyone that bigger guys can dance and sing with the best of them.

Set designer David Gallo has put together a brilliant backdrop for the show. Once Huey and Felicia find success, the stage turns into a television studio and the audience watches the performance through huge on-stage TV cameras. At another point, a massive spinning record appears on stage with three singers in its center.  The scenic design alone makes Memphis a must-see.

Another highlight is the cheeky number, “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night,” where a preppy white girl dances to the sounds of the Be Black Trio. When a record store forces Huey to play a Perry Como song, the conjured image of Como slides out sleepily from stage left as the record plays and Huey says, “Perry Como? More like Perry Coma.” There’s also the more serious song, “Colored Woman,” into which Boswell pours plenty of emotion. The song’s lyrics—”there are limits for dark-skinned girls stuck in this light-skinned world”—still, unfortunately, ring true for many black women today.

Overall, this is an upbeat show and the audience wants Huey and Felicia’s interracial relationship to make it. Cheers erupt when the two finally share a kiss, and a gasp can be heard when another shared kiss causes Huey’s mama (Julie Johnson) and Delray to go into a panic. It’s shocking that a kiss between a white guy and a black girl could cause such a stir, but it also reminds us that it wasn’t so long ago that interracial marriage was illegal. We can all agree that the South of the 1950’s was a pretty racially intolerant climate, but Memphis also forces us to think about today’s issues – while Huey and Felicia are lamenting the fact that they can’t get married, he asks, “What if two grown adults could marry whoever they like?”, a question that retains resonance for our era’s own marriage equality fight.

The beauty of Memphis is that the subject of race, race relations, and racism is packaged in wonderful songs and plenty of humorous moments. It’s a show that inspires theatergoers to reflect upon the past and to realize that there is still much work to be done to reach true unity and equality.

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