The 'Memphis' Connection To Boston Still Sizzles

Felicia Boswell and the cast of "Memphis." (Paul Kolnik studio)
Felicia Boswell and the cast of "Memphis." (Paul Kolnik studio)

What started out as a very good musical at the North Shore Music Theatre is now even better in its Broadway in Boston touring show production at – be still my heart – the Colonial Theatre (through Dec. 23).

So it’s fitting that a multiple 2010 Tony winner, including best musical , with such a rich Boston-area history is making such a return splash to reopen Boston’s most storied theater. I can’t say that I have tremendous recall of the original production, though the skeleton of the plot is the same. Huey Calhoun, a white disc jockey loosely based on Dewey Phillips who helped showcase black music in the 1950s, particularly rhythm ‘n’ blues in Memphis, falls in love with a black singer, Felicia. It’s a love that dare not speak its name, despite Calhoun’s uncompromising and amusing rebelliousness. Felicia’s brother is as opposed to the relationship as Huey’s cracker mother.

It’s a better than average un-ironic love story, certainly, by contemporary Broadway musical standards. And the stagecraft, under the inspired guidance of director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Sergio Trujillo is superb, never overpowering the story but imaginatively and excitingly driving it forward. I don’t remember dancing this good in a Broadway show since Susan Stroman’s “Contact.”

Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart.  (Paul Kolnik studio)
Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart. (Paul Kolnik studio)

It’s the music that really propels the story, though. As I said back in 2003, original Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) beautifully blend rock and show music into something that fully honors both traditions – an incredibly rare accomplishment. A superb nine-piece band is fully schooled in both genres and any other sub-genre that comes its way – gospel, funk, rocking blues, rhythm 'n' blues.

If the songs aren’t as memorable as in the best of Broadway musicals — and I certainly don’t recall the individual songs from 10 years ago — what does seem apparent is that both the music and the lyrics are sharper than they were, and they were pretty good to begin with. There’s a rich palette of music that Bryan taps into and none of it generic-sounding, except for a couple of ballads that veer into “American Idol” see-how-long-I-can-hold-a-note-without-doing-anything-with-it corruption.

And Felicia Boswell (as Felicia) could go toe to toe with the great singers in ‘50s girl groups like the Chantels or Shirelles, though her voice has the fuller sound of ‘60s divas like Martha Reeves or Gladys Knight (with a sprinkling of Diana Ross sweetness).

Her costar, Bryan Fenkart, is an odder duck as Huey, even down to a kind of platypus puss. I can’t say that his singing knocked me out, but he does fully inhabit the role of a gangly white boy in love with black culture, who goes from outcast to idol when he gets all the white kids dancing. He insists, though, on black dancers on the TV show he ends up hosting in Memphis. Fenkart looks like a younger Denis O’Hare – a wonderful Broadway presence in between cavorting with vampires on “True Blood” and lawyers on “The Good Wife.” [Insert lawyer joke here.] Huey is reminiscent of the Davis character on “Treme” except that Fenkart and DiPietro make Huey likable.

Which is only fitting, given how likable the whole show is.  You rock, "Memphis."

Here's a taste from the "Memphis" publicity folks:

This program aired on December 13, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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