Theater Review: "Memphis" At The Pantages
“Memphis” follows one man, Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), as he falls in love with two things he shouldn’t have: rock and roll music and a girl named Felicia (Felicia Boswell). Why is this a problem? Huey is a white man living in the segregated South in the 1950s, where rock and roll is considered the devil’s music and falling in love across racial lines is not only frowned upon, but downright dangerous.
But Huey stands up to the prevailing sentiment of the time; against all odds, the illiterate Tennessee boy becomes a DJ on a well-regarded radio station run by Mr. Simmons (William Parry), where he plays rock and roll tunes for teenagers all over Memphis—including a song by Felicia that becomes an instant hit—and becomes the number one radio personality in the city.
However, not everyone is accepting of Huey’s actions. Felicia’s brother Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington) clearly distrusts Huey, and even Huey’s own mother (Julie Johnson) makes no effort to hide her distaste towards his relationship with Felicia. Throughout his time in the limelight, Huey learns the hard way that just because he’s wealthy and famous doesn’t mean that those around him will turn a blind eye and cast away their prejudices.
The cast of “Memphis” is a talented group of performers. Fenkart is both heartfelt and hilarious as Huey; not only is his comedic timing fantastic, often making the audience roar with laughter, but his range of emotions is evident during the more dramatic scenes.
Boswell injects a healthy dose of Southern sass to her performance as Felicia. Although she and Fenkart don’t seem to have very good chemistry in certain scenes (the passion oftentimes comes across as forced, if at all), Boswell blows everyone away with her stunning vocals.
Julie Johnson as Mama Calhoun, Rhett George as Gator, and Will Mann as Bobby are the three surprises of the cast. With David Bryan's score, each of the three performers is given a chance to shine. Mann’s vocal performance in “Big Love” is nothing short of astounding as he leaps, jumps, and cartwheels across the stage, and George’s beautiful tenor voice is wonderfully showcased in the moving “Say a Prayer.” However, it is Johnson’s powerful vocal performance and soulful ad libs that take everyone by surprise in “Change Don’t Come Easy.”
David Gallo’s scenic design and Howell Binkley’s lighting design also add layers to the show and help set the tone for each scene and for the show as a whole. Even though the performers are well-illuminated, much of the set remains in darkness, subtly hinting at the prejudice and violence that can be found on the streets of Memphis. The set design also hints at the prejudice towards African Americans through differences between the sets for the white and black neighborhoods, further immersing the audience in 1950s Memphis.
Though the musical is certainly not centered around original themes—it is often reminscint of “Hairspray”— “Memphis” gives a fresh perspective on the musical roots of the African American Civil Rights Movement, while also making a subtle statement on the controversial issue of gay marriage rights that is relevant in our society today. Filled with wonderful musical performances, great portrayals from the actors, and clever staging and lighting, “Memphis” is certainly a show worth seeing.