When the 5th Avenue was developing, producing and presenting “Memphis” in 2009, I saw it. What energy, what passion!
This last week my granddaughter Vanessa and I saw it again, with the Broadway touring company performing and it’s even better. I didn’t think it could get any better, but it did. It’s livelier, glossier and glitterier. The performers are great, the leads having performed it in its Broadway incarnation and they’re outstanding. Bryan Fenkart as Huey and Felicia Boswell as Felicia are powerful, funny, and, great singers and dancers. They held your eyes whenever they were on stage.
The setting is Memphis, Tennessee in the 1950s. Segregation was in full power in the South. Besides neighborhoods, schools, restaurants, radio stations, and theaters, clubs were segregated, too. Huey, a white man, is crazy about the so-called “race music” in black clubs. He wanders through Beale Street, listening to the music that wafts out of the underground clubs.
Huey finally finds a job at a white radio station by tricking Mr. Simmons, the owner (William Parry) into trying him out. The station normally only gets three or four calls per hour requesting songs, sung by white singers like Perry Como and Patti Page. Well, Huey gets 29 calls when he plays his own black music favorites after he locks to door to the booth. If "Memphis" is the personification of rhythm and blues, then Huey is the personification of the loud, crazy-talking DJ, and the listener telephone response convinces Mr. Simmons to hire him.
One night, Huey hears Felicia (Felicia Boswell) singing in a club owned by her brother Delray (Horace V. Rogers). When the white face ventures down the stairs, everything in the club stops. Delray is all for throwing him out, but Huey intrigues Felicia with his passion, so she stays Delray’s hand. Huey falls in love with the beautiful, vivacious singer. There ensues the crux of the story. Huey loves Felicia; Delray and Huey’s Momma Gladys (Julie Johnson), a waitress in a diner, don’t like the very real likelihood for violent trouble. Some thugs see Felicia and Huey out walking one night and beat them up. Delray puts his foot down and insists that they don’t ever see each other again. Of course by then Felicia is in love with him, too.
Felicia is looking for her big break and sings on Huey’s new television show, which features black teen dancers. She gets an offer to go to New York and Huey gets an offer to take his TV show to NY. Felicia has always wanted to go to the big time but Huey won’t abandon his black dancers who can’t be on a New York show. The romance of Felicia and Huey goes into a downward spiral . . . but you keep hoping and pulling for them to make their love work.
Years later, she’s going on a national tour and stops in Memphis to see Huey. He’s become run down and sad and wishes her well on her way up.
Christopher Ashley’s direction has refined the show to a sharp edge. The energy is phenomenal. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is inspired. He brings brilliance to the dances and the dancers respond expertly.
David Gallo’s scenery is a faithful rendition of the original sets, but he’s added a new platform for the dancers above the action, complete with the row of white light bulbs as on a Broadway marquee.
"Memphis" runs into October, so there’s still time to see this passionate retelling of love, blues, and rock and roll. For tickets or more information, go online at www.5thavenue.org or call the box office at 888-5th-4TIX.