Leads make the most of 'Memphis'

Posted 9:39am on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013

This musical may be set in Tennessee, but it is a Texan who steals the show.

The national touring production of the Broadway hit Memphis opened an eight-performance run Tuesday night at Bass Hall and made it easy to understand how this show waltzed away with the Tony Award for best musical (and three others) in 2010.

Set in that music mecca in the 1950s, when rock 'n' roll was just beginning to learn how to shake its hips, Memphis tells the story of Huey (Bryan Fenkart), a character loosely based on Elvis-era Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, and his love for singer Felicia (Felicia Boswell). The problem, however, is that Huey is white and Felicia is black and, in Memphis (or most any other Southern city) in the 1950s, that was a line that few people dared to cross.

So Huey spends most of the musical attempting to make Felicia a star by breaking down color barriers on his radio show, while also trying to avoid being beaten to death by whites who are offended by his lack of respect for the time-honored concept of bigotry.

The adjustment that has to be made when taking in this musical, which features music by Bon Jovi's David Bryan and book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, is that it owes a lot more to Broadway than to Beale Street. In the context of this show, Memphis is a place, or maybe even a mindset, but it is not a sound.

If you are looking for a real Memphis vibe, this is not the place to go. Elvis, for example, not only goes unheard, he is never even mentioned. Of course, if you are looking for "authentic," what are you doing at a Broadway musical in the first place?

With that understood, this production, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth, comes across extremely well. Fenkart and Boswell carry the show beautifully. The former fully realizes his quirky, wild-man-with-a-sensitive-soul character, and the latter is a first-rate Broadway belter. She over-sings in a few places, but it is hard to know whether to blame her, director Christopher Ashley (who does a great job overall) or just American Musical Theater in general for that problem. At more than 2 1/2 hours, the show is longer than it needs to be.

The choreography, by Sergio Trujillo, is appropriately bouncy and exuberant. The onstage band, led by conductor Darryl Archibald, and the overall sound mix are both on the money. The costuming by Paul Tazewell appears true to the period. The sets by David Gallo, however, are unnecessarily dreary and add little.

But while almost all of Memphis' elements are highly polished and honed (the ensemble singing is also particularly good), beginning with the lead performances, this show belongs to Mama.

North Texan Julie Johnson is completely unrecognizable in the relatively small role of Huey's mother (listed as just "Mama" in the playbill), a character much older than she is. But we sure know her when she opens her mouth. When she is acting, she nails the part, right down to the accent (which is close to, but not exactly like, a Texan one). And then she tucks the show under her arm and walks away with it when she sings.

Johnson, who makes her home in Whitewright, has long been a favorite on area stages. And youngsters all over the nation know her as the voice of Baby Bop on the Barney and Friends television series. So it's a delightful surprise to see that she is part of this touring production, and no surprise at all to see that she makes such a fabulous showing. I hope those kids around her are taking notes.

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