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Memphis

Winning the Tonys for best musical, book, original score, and orchestration in 2010 doesn't begin to say enough about Memphis. One would have to search and consider many previous "best musicals" before finding anything that can compete with this one for the sheer power of the emotional experience.

Memphis national tour
Memphis national tour
Photo: Paul Kolnik
The big picture is how music played a leading role (along with many brave souls) in breaking down the divisions between races in the U.S. This alone infuses the story (book by Joe DiPietro) with enough punch to match any drama. Add an orginal score (David Bryan)—at once reminscent of the great tunes from the 1950's and early 60's and yet entirely new, with contemporary arrangements that free up the production from the limitations of a "musical review"—that provides for some of the most stunning vocal performances you're likely to see anywhere, and you've got a barn burner.

The three gospel-inspired numbers (from African-American Baptist churches and from Appalachia and the white South as well) and the super-talented cast play a large part in this; while taking nothing away from the energetic R&B and rock 'n' roll numbers that inspire some knock out choreography, adapted from dance moves of the era, with some spiffy upgrades.

Felicia Boswell as Felicia
Felicia Boswell as Felicia
Photo: Paul Kolnik
Based on a number of real life characters, with a liberal dose of poetic license to turn biography into art, Memphis captures the intensity of historic changes in race relations that were accelerated by the segregated squadrons of World War II, most prominently the Tuskeegee Airmen, which led to the integration of our armed forces. This was followed, in 1954, with the U.S. Supreme Court order for the desegration of our public schools.

All of this subtext might be too much for a musical were it not for the wonderfully comic moments that DiPietro stirs in, starting with the first scene, with the white DJ announcing the previous platter, "Whitey White and the White Tunes" singing "Whiter Than You." LOL!

Bryan Fenkart as Huey
Bryan Fenkart as Huey
Photo: Paul Kolnik
Though there is no Elvis send up in Memphis, the point is made by Felicia (Felicia Boswell) that rock 'n' roll is just R&B sped up. The white producers didn't like to hear this, but we all know that there is a direct through-line from African rhythms and melodies to gospel and the blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll (and rap, which came later). The company's number, "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night" says it all.

So, really, Memphis is, on another level, a celebration of the healing power of American music. And heal it does, brothers and sisters! Boswell simply astounds in number after number, regardless of the style, but her gospel number leave us no choice but us to stand up and cheer wildly!

Felicia Boswell as Felicia and Bryan Fenkart as Huey
Felicia Boswell as Felicia
and Bryan Fenkart as Huey
Photo: Paul Kolnik
All of the larger social issues aside, it is the personal drama—between Huey (Bryan Fenkart), a white guy with a passion for black music, and Felica, a black gal with a gifted voice—that makes everything work from top to bottom. What a roller coaster ride! Huey brings black music to white radio and Felicia moves up from her brother Delray's club to a recording contract.

Fenkart's Huey, roughly based on the real-life DJ, Dewey Phillips—who qualifies as the first shock jock—is a marvelous send-up of the amazing motor-mouths that were almost as big in their markets as the musical artists. There's a streak of live-wire Jerry Lee Lewis in Huey as well, as he leaps around the set in his fashion-challenged outfits. Fenkart is on stage for all but 10 minutes of the show. Try that at altitude after you live in NYC! Goodness, gracious! Great balls of fire! (Make sure you drink plenty of unchlorinated water, Bryan!)

Bryan Fenkart as Huey and Felicia Boswell as Felicia
Bryan Fenkart as Huey
and Felicia Boswell as Felicia
Photo: Paul Kolnik
Also, to its credit, the story squarely confronts the ugly side of white violence, particularly in the South, without making it the focus of the story—or inserting it gratuitiously or as a matter of form—since the catharsis is really about coming together with music.

Excellent performances throughout, including some smooth crooning from Horace V. Rogers (Delray), some Ethel Merman and gospel-infused fireworks from Julie Johnson (Mama), a heartfelt spiritual from Rhett George (Gator), and a great period rendition from Will Mann (Bobby).

Like the music, Sergio Trujillo's choreography takes the best from the period and sends it up to contemporary standards, and let me tell you, the dancing is fab! Paul Tazewell's costumes, especially the fine suits and dresses for the African American set, are sublime. Hopefully, those fellas will share the name of their tailor!

Most importantly, Memphis offers us a way to heal the artificial issues that separate us—by singing and dancing together!

Denver Center Attraction's presentation of Memphis runs through October 21st. For more information: 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.

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