‘Memphis’ dances its way back to San Diego
By Carol Davis
SAN DIEGO—Put on your dancing shoes and make haste to the Civic Theatre downtown. Memphis, the La Jolla Playhouses-bred musical that wound it’s way to Broadway picking up four Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Circle Awards and four Tony Awards including Best Musical along the way, is back in town for a very limited time. And it is terrific!!!!
Under the original direction of Artistic Director Christopher Ashley and with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music and lyrics by David Bryan based on a concept by George W. George, Memphis the rock ‘n roll musical based loosely on DJ “Daddy O” Dewey Phillips’ life, burst onto the Mandell Weiss Stage of the Playhouse opening its 2009 season. Then as now, there was more energy and drive, talent and guts, glitter and dazzle shown here than seen in some time. There have been some significant changes since its trip to and from Broadway, however but if you’ve not it before, it matters not. It’s still that damn good!
Dewey Phillips was born on my birthday, May 13th in 1926 (same date, different year) in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1949 he was the city’s ‘leading radio personality’ (along with Alan Freed). Dewey was the “King of Memphis radio…with his Red, Hot & Blue broadcast WHBQ the number one show with a bi racial audience”
Huey’s life and career made history. At a time when the status quo post civil war ideas were being slightly nudged he shoved. At a time when Rock ‘N Roll was just coming on the horizon, he stood at the edge.
At a time when White America owned the airwaves, as much as it controlled societies mores, and as much as it was as impossible for any, as they called it ‘jungle music’ to be put on a turnstile, he broke down the barriers.
At a time when it was taboo for a black woman and a white man to be seen together in Tennessee, Dewy broke the rules.
The story follows the two tracks of Huey’s (a composite of Dewey, Alan Freed and Dick Clark who came after) life, as his rise in the radio industry was as much a struggle as was the love affair with Felicia (Felicia Boswell) a talented black blues singer who performed in her brother Delray’s (Quentin Earl Darrington) underground Beale Street nightclub.
Much to Delray’s chagrin and staunch opposition, a love relationship developed a life of its own between Huey and Felicia and it plays out over the course of the evening with some wins but mostly losses as the climate in Tennessee wasn’t exactly warming to interracial interacting, to say the least.
Bryan Fenkart plays Huey with just enough quirkiness to let us in on the nature of his personality, yet enough endearing qualities for us to understand why Felicia could fall for this bigger-than-life small-town guy.
It’s hard for me to remember at what point in the production I was actually blown away. I recall early on when the Company showcased the opening song and dance number, “Underground” in the underground digs (David Gallo and Howell Brinkley designed the lighting) of Delray’s Beale Street Club, an exclusively Black hangout that this was going to be a big show.
The ‘all black club’ excuse lasted until Huey Calhoun made his way down the stairs and convinced the hostile crowd that, in essence, he was one of them especially when he took the mike and pleaded his case with “The Music of My Soul/” I think I was hooked from that moment on, as were those in the club, again with the exception on Delray, who cautioned, “Not so fast brother.” By then it was too late to look back.
Huey Calhoun was no one to mess with. As much as he lacked in education and good judgment, he made up for in perseverance and seat-of-the-pants decisions with the exception of how much he could get out of his interracial relationship with the girl of his dreams and how much he could push his white bosses. The two biggies in his life.
It was a tough climb to the top of the charts especially when you anger half of the people with whom you are doing business, but he did it! But the bumps on the way down stung more because all those who helped him up in his glory days tired of him and his antics, passed him off as a nut cake, and turned on him after he pushed the button once too often.
While Huey never stopped struggling for his dreams, others were rushing in to take his place and the bubble and reputation he formed around himself shattered into a million pieces. But he was back 15 years later where he started, at the bottom. To his credit, however, Huey accepted it all and went about business as usual. In this new incarnation, this information was left out and the ending (that I won’t spoil for you) has a much softer landing. It’s good. It’s up beat and rewarding.
Bryan Fenkart is intense, eccentric and quirky and his interpretation of a peculiar and strange kind of a guy, as mentioned above, has been toned down but he comes across as somewhat whiney and annoying. Sometimes it was a bit difficult watching him as he squirmed about, rattling on and on finally shouting out his mantra “Hockadoo!” but his character is pretty well defined and for that, we have him to thank. And can he belt out a song? You bet.
As for the other dazzling performances, Felicia Boswell takes no back seat to anyone, ever. She is a standout, knockout performer. I could have watched and listened to her all evening. By the time the second act rolled around and she was back in Memphis as a big time star (something she had Huey to be thankful for) one could see her as more poised and mature. This was something Huey was not prepared for.
Right up there in the category of outstanding is Julie Johnson who plays Huey’s bigoted mother. When she finally comes around to finding her own way into Huey’s world she nearly brings the house down with her “Change Don’t Come Easy”.
But the journey is what this tale is about and Memphis is an exciting, visually eye-popping one with Shawn Sagady and David Gallo’s projections and Sergio Trujillos bang-up choreography along with an extremely and evenly talented cast.
DiPietro’s book puts a face on the characters of an era many don’t know or recall. The story is compelling. Bryan’s musical score under the musical direction of Alvin Hough, JR and his nine-piece band (on the stage most of the time) drive the story as much as Huey’s character. Both music and lyrics are story fitting and beautifully highlighted.
I took my friend who has just missed it in Las Vegas at the new Smith Center for the Performing Arts as she was headed to San Diego anyway. We both left the theatre breathing a huge WOW! When I saw the show for the first time in La Jolla, I (don’t want to say “I told you so”) I predicted it would go to Broadway. ‘Just sayin’.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: through July 29th
Organization: Broadway/San Diego
Production Type: Musical
Where: Third Avenue @ B Street
Ticket Prices: ticket prices vary
Venue: San Diego Civic Theatre
Davis is a San Diego-based theatre critic who may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Short URL: http://www.sdjewishworld.com/?p=30135