Monday, August 13, 2012

‘Memphis’ the musical hits Toronto

‘Memphis’ the musical hits Toronto

8 December 2011 No Comments

Image: Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell

Memphis – Opening Night December 7, 2011
Winner of 4 Tony Awards in 2010, including Best Musical
Playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts till December 24
Presented by Dancap Productions Inc.
By Anya Wassenberg

If the ratings don’t go to shit, and we don’t get killed, you’re hired.

Everybody wants to be black on a Saturday night!

Momma told me there are limits for a dark-skinned girl in a fair-skinned world.

You wouldn’t think a musical about race relations in the Bad Old South and forbidden love between a white man and a black woman would be an entertaining night out, but Memphis is hugely so, driven by the compelling storyline and powerhouse vocals all around. The first song and dance number begins within minutes of the curtain rising and the frenetic pace keeps up to the very end of the show.

Huey Calhoun is a brash, illiterate white boy in love with black music – and a certain pretty black singer – who has the crazy idea to play what was then called “race music” on white radio stations. In the days of segregated Tennessee in the earl 1950’s, the centre of the radio dial, (which got the most reception of course,) was reserved for white music along the lines of Broadway tunes and crooners like Perry Como and Roy Rogers. The left of the dial, which was typically distorted and got limited reception, was designated for black music.  The character of Huey is loosely based on the real life figure of Alan Freed, a disc jockey who did just that, giving a new generation its bold and infectious new music, and who is often credited with coining the term “rock ‘n’ roll”.

Huey has to deal with Mr. Simmons, his sceptical boss at the radio station, a racist Mama, Felicia’s hostile brother Delray and Felicia’s own reluctance to cross the race lines in a time when it could and did have deadly consequences. The romantic storyline intertwines with the classic “I’m gonna make you a star” dynamic, but the dark realities of the times intrude on Huey’s dreams in sometimes violent ways. The script cleverly uses humour and the energy of the song and dance numbers to balance out those grimmer moments.

The Tony-winning original score and music come from Bon Jovi founding member David Bryant, and while the sound is definitely along the lines of rock ‘n’ roll, it makes no attempt at any kind of period authenticity. It’s got the bouncy and irresistible flavour of early rock ‘n’ roll without becoming a carbon copy, in other words, and features some gorgeous churchy harmonies along with the impressive vocal acrobatics. An ingenious two-tier set seamless shifts from radio station to TV set to apartment to nightclub in a few seconds with lighting changes and a few drop panels.

The logic of the story is a little shaky in spots (it’s a musical!) but it’s held together convincingly by the strength of the two leads in Bryan Fenkart as Huey the gutsy rebel and Felicia Boswell as the black woman who has to play her cards just right to get anywhere in her starkly black and white world. Felicia is an incredible singer and the two paired well together both as romantic interests and musically in the duets. While the vocals were strong all around, a highlight was Julie Johnson as Huey’s Mama, who brought the house down with her epiphany song,” Change Don’t Come Easy”.

There was a big and appreciative crowd on opening night (with a few seats left on the balconies) and many of the show’s luminaries were in the house, including choreographer Sergio Trujillo. Pick up your seats early for what is sure to be one of the holiday season’s hottest tickets.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

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