Friday, February 15, 2013
Theater review: Music is a universal language in 1950s Memphis
Segregation cannot keep these lovers apart.
FORT WORTH The musical, Memphis, is loosely based on the life of Dewey Phillips, who was a disc jockey in Memphis in the 1950s. Dewey was one of the first white disc jockeys to play black music to all audiences during the time when segregation was still a major way of life, and the law in many areas in the country. Memphis played on Broadway from October 19, 2009 to August 5, 2012. The show won four Tony Awards, including "Best Musical."
The city of Memphis, as in most places in the South during the 1950s, was still very segregated by law as well as by culture. When the cultures intermingled, it was under very strict guidelines. When these guidelines were crossed or ignored, there were usually consequences. During this time, in this culture, segregation included separate areas for blacks only or whites only that included areas in stores or the entire store, water fountains, neighborhoods, the types of jobs a person could have, music and relationships. Memphis tells the story of what happens when Huey Calhoun crosses those spoken and unspoken boundaries when, as a white man, he enthusiastically embraces and brings Black Rhythm and blues music to the white culture of Memphis.
As I walked into lobby of the majestic Bass Performance Hall, I appreciated the age, gender and cultural diversity that had come to see this production. Also in the lobby were representatives from an area radio station, and a film crew that was interacting with the patrons, at times interviewing a cross section for their thoughts on the show that they were about to see. Inside the auditorium area, almost all of the seats from the main level on up were completely full in anticipation of the explosive energy, music and story that is Memphis, The Musical.
The scenic design by David Gallo, combined with the lighting design by Howell Binkley and the projection design by David Gallo and Shawn Sagady, created a masterpiece. As I took my seat in the audience, I noticed that the predominate set piece was a large tuning dial of an older radio. Later, this transitioned into the interior of a radio station, then seamlessly into the interior of a department store, then into the interior of Delray’s, an African American music club in Memphis, and onto each of the multiple areas in which the aspects of the story takes place. Using specific areas for lighting, color schemes, shading, semi-see through screens, portable and multi-use columns, the use of walking areas and stairs of multiple levels, very effective use of multi-media, and seamless set changes, the audience was transported from one well-designed and believable location to the next.
Paul Tazewell worked miracles with his costume designs, easily transporting the audience to Memphis during the 1950s. Each actor was superbly costumed for their characters’ style and station, from the mismatched and colorful style of Huey Calhoun to the elegant styling of Felicia, the initial frumpiness then later glamorous makeover of Mama, as well as the business and executive styling of the suits of the radio and TV executives, and the various patrons in Delray’s and the participants on Calhoun’s Cavalcade.
As impressive as the technology side of the production was, the performing aspects of the show were also stunning and must be seen and heard in person to fully experience.
Each of the actors, singers and dancers in this production, whether a lead or part of the ensemble, were all worth watching, as they always actively engaged in the story being presented on stage. I tended to not just focus on the lead actors, but also look at the peripheral actors to see how present to the moment they were. Each of the performers on stage are truly an active and engaging part of this performance.
Bryan Fenkart, as Huey, was a non-stop tornado of action, passion, song, dance, and delivery in this production. Fenkhart portrayed a Calhoun that was charming, witty, ambitious, driven, at times naïve, and always full of passion. His tenor vocals, with a slight twang, were compelling in their own right and blended well with others in shared scenes, such as when he sang “The Music of My Soul” with Felicia and “She’s My Sister” with Delray. From his beginning scene to the finale, Calhoun was a character that reached so far beyond accepted paradigms, that he sometimes stunned those around him with his audacity. Through his passion, enthusiasm, vocal and dancing skills, Fenkart delivered a Calhoun that could well be the prototype Calhoun. From his accent to his slightly slouching way of moving, his witty and charming mixture of bravado and self deprecating way of interacting with people, especially with his mother and his love interest and Calhoun’s, Fenkhart delivers!
In the opening scene in the department store, you watched the charm and the way of thinking outside of the box that propelled him to Delray’s for the love of the music and more. During the performance, Fenkart at times showed a tendency to extend his downstage arm and shoulder while slightly turning the rest of his body upstage, thereby closing off his body and face from the audience, which minimized the maximum experience of several emotional scenes between Huey and his mother, as well as in several scenes between Huey and Felicia.
Felicia Boswell, as Felicia Farrell, balances the goals of a young Negro woman in Memphis in the 1950s, who wants success with her music. She has to toe the line with cultural expectations and wants love and support from her love interest as well as from her brother, though this is often in conflict. And that is what compels the story. Boswell had superb vocal and dancing skills, as seen and appreciated in her songs including “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Kiss”, with Huey, “Colored Woman” solo and “The Music of My Soul” with Huey and company. At times during the performance, I wondered if the dancing, singing and acting skills might be a bit too polished for a character that we are to believe is untrained. However, it is soon apparent that there was more skill in what she was presenting than I at first realized. As the musical proceeded, it became clear that Boswell, as a highly experienced performer, was bringing that polish through her character that is more polished when performing at Delray’s and less so when not in the show within the show.
Horace V. Rogers, as Delray, was well cast as Felicia’s older and protective brother. His songs were as strong and compelling as his acting ability. Rogers’ Delray showed an understanding of the internal and external conflicts that were present and changing in the culture of the time, while he also tried to protect his sister and support her dream. The audience was mesmerized when Delray confronts Huey and is adamant in how he is going to support his sister.
Julie Johnson, a local Texas actress, plays the role of Mama, Huey Calhoun’s mother. What an unexpected treat. This character can sometimes be underplayed and treated as a bit of a comic relief. This was definitely not true in this case. Johnson played this role so well, I wondered if in preparation for the role, she had studied families in similar situations for her role as Huey’s mother. She fit the role and characteristics needed to make this complex role so believable and acceptable. Her acting is flawless, organic, natural and such a pleasure to experience. Johnson’s acting choices and her delivery of dialogue and song is astonishingly rich, powerful and diverse. Her delivery was spot on, from the accent, the cynicism of a frustrated and overworked mother of a twenty something unemployed son that still lives at home, to dealing with changes in racial issues that she had taken for granted her whole life. When she sang “Make Me Stronger” with Huey, Delray and company, an incredibly strong and passionate voice that I was not expecting emerged, that had me sitting up straight in my chair and entirely focused on this amazing voice and acting skill. Likewise, when she sang “Change Don’t Come Easy” with Delray, Gator and Bobby, I could well imagine she had studied vocal presentation in a similar environment. This talent is impressive. She is one of the individual performers for whom I wanted to offer a standing ovation after each of her scenes. Immediately after Johnson’s initial scene, a member of the audience turned to me and stated, “Mama is my new favorite character.” And she impossibly kept getting better and better in each scene.
Rhett George, as Gator, was another of the very talented cast that needs recognizing. Gator is initially a non-speaking role until the scene in which Felicia gets hurt, at which point Gator starts talking with his song “Say a Prayer,” along with the rest of the company. While not vocalizing prior to this, Gator does a remarkable job of communicating through nonverbal means. This was a testament to George’s skills as an accomplished actor. When Gator began talking, we were also privileged to hear his singing ability, which is considerable
William Parry, as Mr. Simmons, brought yet another tremendous talent to this incredibly gifted cast. Parry displayed his considerable acting skills as Huey’s boss at the radio station. He shared with the audience Simmons’ conflicts in hiring a white man to play Negro songs on his radio station, to barely tolerating Huey’s antics that could either ruin his business or make his station the number one station in Memphis. Parry played this balance of dramatic concern and comedic frustration brilliantly.
The ensemble brought so much to the story. Whether it was as background dancers, backup singers, roles with few or no lines, or actors that played multiple roles, each member of this cast deserved recognition. The entire cast and crew worked together for a brilliant performance.
Expecting to see a production that includes all of the elements of a Broadway style production, such as fast-paced, high energy dancing and singing that would make me want to buy the DVD/CD, acting that would envelop me in the story, and high-quality design elements such as costuming, lighting and sets to create the reality, I was not disappointed. In fact, far from being disappointed -- I was enthralled and in rapt attention throughout the performance. There were times during the production that I wanted to stand and give various individual performers a standing ovation after a particularly well performed scene or song. Additionally, the lighting, set design, costuming and sound were each so amazing, I could write an entire review on each design area and then go back to the musical just to see them again.
Memphis uses music that will capture your heart and soul, dancing that will often entrance you, and acting that will bring you into a story that speaks of social change, forbidden love, taking risks and creating changes through the consequences. There were so many amazing aspects of this production that I could write for hours and pages. Each member of the cast and crew deserve praise for the way that this show was presented. It was stunning, electrifying, and dazzling. This musical will grab your attention and hold it tight. You may well wonder how time could fly by so quickly when suddenly the actors are taking their bows.
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