Memphis Review – The Musical Rocks the Academy of Music

MEMPHIS, the 2010 Tony® Award Winner for Best Musical, and the show that’s currently blowing the roof off Broadway, opened to rave reviews and is at the Academy of Music on Jan. 17 - 23 for a limited engagement as part of the Broadway Season, presented by The Kimmel Center and The Shubert Organization.

Memphis tells the story of Huey, a white DJ who embraces the black music being produced by the smoky, underground music clubs of segregated Memphis, in the 1950s. He falls in love with Felicia, a black singer, and the dramatic story arc ensues, as their Romeo-and-Juliet-style relationship develops.

The story is - loosely - based on that of Dewey Phillips, an actual Memphis DJ, who pioneered the archetype of the over-the-top, motor-mouth radio personality. Phillips embraced the black music of the Memphis scene, and began to play records from both black and white artists. This approach initially encountered resistance from his radio station.

But the popularity of his show – “Red, Hot, and Blue” - among young people, not only kept him on the air, but made him famous throughout the entire South. And his decision to fuse both white and black musical artists into a biracial blend of rock n’ roll, had a lasting impact on American musical history.

The radio theme is constant, throughout the show. The old, traditional radio dial icon appears on the curtain while the audience waits for the show to begin. And the story progresses through the rapid ascent – via radio popularity - of Huey and Felicia to fame and celebrity. Being on the "center of the radio dial" - a phrase Huey uses frequently - symbolizes the music's shift from the fringes to the mainstream.

It was also intriguing to see a show in which we had no idea what to expect. Despite being loosely based on a historical figure, Memphis is a fictional story, with its entirely original music flowing from the pen of one of the founding members of Bon Jovi, David Bryan (his first attempt at the genre).

Although the historical subject matter is serious and weighty, we laughed more than we had anticipated, as much of the dialogue is quite funny – a superb touch from librettist Joe DiPietro, to lighten the mood.

And just like the real “Memphis sound” – the central appeal of Memphis the musical is, naturally, the music. The august walls of the Academy of Music reverberated with the glorious music, inspired by the talents of legendary 20th-century bluesmen, from W.C. Handy on, who worked their magic from the banks of the Mississippi River. (Bryan and DiPietro, who ironically are both from New Jersey, capture it well.)

Bryan Fenkart (Huey) and Felicia Boswell (Felicia) soar in the leading roles. The fictional Huey is very likeable as the protagonist, and Boswell’s voice is outstanding. The blues clubs of Memphis materialize on the Academy stage, and you are transported back to the middle of the 20th-century, half a continent away. Among the supporting cast, we were particularly impressed by Quentin Earl Darrington as Delray. The dancing and choreography are especially good, and the spirit and soul of a different era is encapsulated in Memphis.

It took seven long years for Memphis to spring from a concept in 2002, to Broadway in 2009, but its four Tony awards testify to its merits. It’s highly worthwhile and a remarkable theatrical experience.

Tickets ranging in price from $20 to $100 are now on sale. Tickets can be purchased by calling 215-893-1999, online at kimmelcenter.org/broadway, at the Kimmel Center box office, Broad & Spruce Sts. (open daily 10 am to 6 pm) or at the Academy of Music box office, Broad & Locust Sts. (open during performances only). Groups of 10 or more will receive discounts for select performances by calling 215-790-5883 or 866-276-2947.

Performances include: Tuesday – Thursday evenings at 7:30 pm; Friday & Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm; and matinees Saturday at 2:00 pm and Sunday at 1:00 pm.


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