EMAV Review: 'Memphis' keeps the joint jumpin' ★★★☆☆


Memphis is a musical by David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (lyrics and book). It played on Broadway from October 19, 2009 to August 5, 2012. The production won four 2010 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The all-important music by Mr. Bryan (of Bon Jovi) competently simulates a wide range of period rock, gospel and rhythm and blues. This satisfying 3-Star production keeps the joint jumpin’ by setting the lively, eight-piece orchestra directly upstage center.

As we await the overture, the audience hears a bit of static over the sound system, then the voice of an announcer, and the proscenium arch lights up to reveal the knobs, dials and tuners of a vintage AM/FM radio with dial pointer frequencies for the stations. Additional unlit sections depict the “On Air”/“Off Air” warning lights of an old time broadcasting studio. Scenic designer, Andy Walmsley masterfully transports us into the magical worlds of radio and recording studios before the first note is even played.

The band strikes up a lively and upbeat composition as the company members of the Beale Street Ensemble spring to life in the black Rock and Roll nightclub called Delray’s Juke Joint, where they jubilantly dance and sing “Underground” with Delray and his sister, Felicia. Huey Calhoun, a white man, arrives on the scene. The regulars begin to leave, but Huey convinces them to stay as he sings "The Music of My Soul".

This momentous meeting underground, on Beale Street, sets the tone for this ill-fated love story about Huey Calhoun, a good ole’ white boy with a passion for R&B music and Felicia Farrell, an up-and-coming black singer. Despite the objections of their loved ones (Huey’s close-minded mama and Felicia’s cautious brother, a club owner), they embark on a dangerous affair. As their careers rise, the relationship is challenged by personal ambition and the pressures of an outside world unable to accept their love. As the talented Huey and Felicia continue their careers, they encounter prejudices that challenge them to consider their priorities and fight for their dreams.

A smooth scenic transition moves us and Huey to his job at Mr. Collin’s Department Store, filled with all white clientele, adults and young bobby soxers with pony tails. Huey is about to be fired from his job as a stock boy when he makes a deal with the owner. If he can sell 5 records by playing them over the speakers, he can have a sales job. Huey plays a rock & roll hit ("Scratch My Itch"), sells 29 records in five minutes, but the store owner fires him anyway, incensed at the type of music being played.