"Memphis" recalls the turbulant 1950s in Southern history. The music, the costumes, the dancing - all were authentic and exciting, and that's what I expected to see. I didn't realize the show focused on social upheaval, too, and it deftly combined powerful music and powerful ideas. It's not surprising that "Memphis" won the Tony Award for best musical.
I didn't live in the 1950s but I have studied the era, because it set the stage for the 1960s, a time of Martin Luther King, Jr., gaining momentum, Rosa Parks refusing to give in to racism on a bus, and the birth of rock n' roll. What do those things have in common? More than you might think.
Years ago I was given a copy of a song called "Hound Dog." I had heard the Elvis Presley version all my life. I had never heard the original version, though, by Big Mama Thornton. It was a revelation. Big Mama Thornton growls the music, and her version is raw and real. Elvis' version pales in comparison.
So much of the music white America thought it had "discovered" in the 1950s actually came from black artists, who made what were known then as "race records." Many of those black artists were never compensated fairly, or even given the artistic credit they deserved.
"Memphis" doesn't shy away from the turbulence and controversy of those times. It explores the musical issues [there is a line about rock n' roll being "the blues, speeded up" - which I love] and the racism that affected every aspect of artists' life.
The main characters, white Huey Calhoun and black singer Felicia Boswell, fall in love, but have to hide their relationship for fear of violence. Loving the "wrong" person is something with which many in the LGBT community can identify, and the "Memphis" creators handle it with sensitivity.
The staging is fascinating and it really adds to the enjoyment of the piece. Act I is fairly standard, although the sets and costumes are authentic. In Act II, there are old-fashioned television cameras onstage for some songs, and there's a screen showing the black and white images of the action - sort of an early version of the screen one sees at concerts today. It's great to see the actors faces more clearly. There is also a jump rope sequence in there somewhere that's fun to watch.
The backbone of the show, however, is the music; and it's the only aspect of the show that I wished had been a bit stronger. I like all the songs. I don't love any of the songs, though. They all tend to blend together. It also would be nice if there were a mixture of real music from the period and original songs.
A great musical should feature at least one song that you walk out of the theater hearing in your head. You won't that with "Memphis." My other quarrel with "Memphis" is that it moves at a breakneck pace. I miss the quiet, intense moments that pull the audience in. Rhett George's powerful "Say a Prayer" is the exception. His intensity and rich voice are exceptionally suited to the moment.
The entire ensemble offer powerful performances, but the standouts are Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell. Fenkhart, who plays central character Huey Calhoun, is a bit too wispy and insubstantial at first, but as the show evolves, the twangy accent and period clothes cease being a big distraction and Fenkhart is able to fully inhabit the character. He also handles the singing and dancing flawlessly.
Felicia Boswell, however, is all-around phenomenal. From the first song, she shows off her powerful voice, incongruous in such a tiny lady.
If you can get tickets, I urge you to see "Memphis."
"Memphis" runs through February 5 at the Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree Street NE in Atlanta. For info or tickets, call 404-881-2100 or visit http://www.foxtheatre.org/