Guest review: National tour of ‘Memphis’

Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell star in the national tour of “Memphis.” Photo credit: Paul Kolnik.

Due to the holiday weekend, I sadly couldn’t make press opening of the national tour of Memphis, so I asked a guest reviewer to cover the show on my behalf. Like me, this person is a musical fanatic, so I trust his opinions on such things.

Review by Christopher Richard

Well Hockadoo! Memphis, the 2010 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical from David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, finally arrived in Chicago last night in all its roof-raising, toe-tapping, crowd-pleasing glory. For those who keep track of such things, this is a full union tour featuring cast members direct from Broadway and a physical production that is not any noticeably less detailed than the one that’s been packing audiences in on Broadway for the past two years. For a scant two weeks, Chicago is getting the real deal.

Memphis, set in the title town during the 1950s, covers the efforts of local white DJ Huey Calhoun to bring the R&B “race records” he loves so much to a broader audience “right in the center of your radio dial.” Along the way, he falls in love with Felicia, an African-American singer he meets out on Memphis’ legendary Beale Street, and promises to get her on the radio. The plot is loosely based on the true story of Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips.

Let’s get a few things out of the way: the plot doesn’t cover any territory that we haven’t seen before, and subtlety is not a word in director Christopher Ashley’s vocabulary for this production. The otherwise talented ensemble members often over-play their featured moments, and the dialogue has a melodramatic tendency to over-state the obvious.

Still, the show has a big, beating heart right when it needs it most, with an infectious score and lively staging that propels the show along with the high-octane energy of a rock concert. The music doesn’t always advance the plot in typical musical theatre fashion, but the vocal pyrotechnics and athletic choreography (from Sergio Trujillo) deliver one show-stopping number after another. And in a show touting the feel-good effects of soul music, isn’t that what counts?

As Huey and Felicia, Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell have graduated from covering (understudying) their respective roles on Broadway. Both of them give extraordinarily loveable performances that have the audience rooting for them right from the get-go. Fenkart has Huey’s “aw, shucks” Southern charm down to a T, and Boswell astoundingly belts her face off about once every five minutes. These two performers are reason enough to catch this show — it’s not often Chicago audiences get to see musical theatre performers really let loose like this.

They’re supported by an equally talented trio of supporting leads: Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse in Drury Lane’s Ragtime) as Felicia’s brother, Delray; Julie Johnson as Huey’s mother and Will Mann as singer Bobby. All three are Broadway performers and vocal power-houses who bring their A-game on the road.

Fun-fact for musical theatre enthusiasts: William Parry, who originated roles in three Sondheim musicals (Sunday in the Park with George, Assassins, and Passion) appears in the non-singing role of Mr. Simmons, the radio station owner.

The finale had the crowd on its feet at Tuesday’s opening, and this reviewer was right there along with them. Don’t worry about thinking too much, and head on down to the Cadillac Palace for some good old-fashioned rock and roll!

“Memphis” plays through Dec. 4 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Tickets and more info here >

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