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Review: ‘Memphis’ heats up Washington
BY GAIL CHOOCHAN
There’s always that one big voice in the cast that stands out a little more than others. Sometimes it’s one of the lead stars, or maybe one of the supporting players. In “Memphis,” onstage at the Kennedy Center, audiences didn’t have to look far or wait that long.
As one of the musical’s stars, Felicia Boswell is an actress whose voice is so commanding, well, do we really need a show? She could easily bring in viewers simply by carrying out a tune. Best part of all, she’s not the only one with vocals that can tear down walls. There’s a whole lot of them in “Memphis.”
Set in the 1950s during segregation, this story about a white radio DJ falling for a beautiful black nightclub singer won the Tony for Best Musical a few years back and is now touring the country.
At the heart of this story is Huey Calhoun, a fast-talking young man with big dreams. And fueling his dreams is the talented Felicia, whom he meets in one of the underground African–American nightclubs and tells her he’ll get her on the radio one day. With some luck and comical hijinks, Huey scores a gig at a local radio station.
His love for “race music” doesn’t go over smoothly, of course, causing quite a stir within the community (as one father slaps his daughter when he discovers what she’s been listening to). And this is just a hint of things to come as some locals disapprove of seeing Huey and Felicia together.
Huey Calhoun comes off a little weasely at first and to be honest, a little annoying, but Bryan Fenkart makes his character so endearing, he kind of grows on you. And Fenkart is absolutely perfect in this role. Huey needs an actor who has a ridiculous amount of energy and has what it takes to rile up listeners on radio and later viewers, when his show makes the leap for the small screen. (The black-and-white real-time images are a nice touch, especially because those in the audience can see what the cast really looks like up close.) Comedy suits Fenkart well, but the actor also succeeds in dramatic scenes such as the moving “Memphis Lives in Me” number.
Besides Boswell and Fenkart, Quentin Earl Darrington as Felicia’s protective brother and Julie Johnson as Huey’s Mama, a singing dynamo by the way, also impress in their solo pieces.
One of the best songs in “Memphis” is one that requires no over-the-top vocals and no athleticism. When Boswell sings “Someday” live at the radio station, it’s incredibly touching and a nice pause from the otherwise fast-moving musical. And there are plenty of equally affecting scenes, including one where a white teenage girl shyly joins an all-black church choir in song.
“Memphis” is a terrific, thoroughly entertaining production. It’s vibrant and passionate and full of cardio-heavy numbers that make even the audience work up a sweat. From the fun “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night” to the smashing closer “Steal Your Rock ’n’ Roll,” this cast and crew are tireless in their dedication to create a show to remember.
Despite an ending that wraps the story a little too neatly, “Memphis” is heavy on soul, and has plenty for viewers to take home.
WANT TO GO?
Where: Kennedy Center, Opera House, Washington
When: Through July 1.
Info: 800/444-1324; kennedy-center.org