Though much of the US civil rights movement’s achievements came through political means, this time of huge shift in American society was also underpinned by significant cultural change and it is this that the Tony-award-winning show Memphis focuses on, in exploring how white radio DJ Huey Calhoun sent shockwaves over the airwaves of this Southern city in the 1950s by ignoring the entrenched racial divisions and playing ‘race’ music for all to hear. And as rock and roll began to capture the attention of the nation, so too was Huey’s attention completely captured by the soulful energy of upcoming singer Felicia Farrell and the underground blues club in which she performs (which belongs to her brother).
That she is black and he is not doesn’t matter to him but it sure as hell does to everyone else (they may sing that ‘Everybody Wants To Be Black On A Saturday night’ but there are still laws preventing mixed marriage) and it is this that provides the dramatic heft to Joe DiPietro’s book, such as it is, to this musical that otherwise puts its focus squarely on the music. And what an unexpected place that music comes from – David Bryan, who just happens to be Bon Jovi’s keyboard player – has compiled a fully original score which pulls in influences from Motown-flecked pop, gospel, R&B and 80s power ballads naturally (I mean, look at the guy’s hair!) – it’s highly tuneful if not instantly catchy but delivered with the conviction it is here, it demands the attention and will doubtless reward relistening (if not rewatching as well ;-))
As it is the performances that really elevate the show into a special piece of musical theatre. Beverley Knight continues her development on the stage with some remarkably intense acting and singing work as Felicia, a woman caught between the love of a good man (no matter how wrong he might be for her) and the unimaginable excitement that a bona fide musical career might hold. Killian Donnelly’s affable charm is a good fit for the rough edges of Huey, the show might be about white men making black music successful but there’s no doubting that it is her strength that is needed to save him. Their chemistry is strong together and the support around them on all sides is just magnificent under Christopher Ashley’s fast-paced direction.
From the men who help them in their lives – Rolan Bell’s protective brother Delray, the warmth of Tyrone Huntley’s Gator, the beautiful twinkle in both the eye and the step of Jason Pennycooke’s Bobby, a cleaner at Huey’s old job come good – to a vibrant hard-working ensemble who might need just a little skipping practice but have Sergio Trujillo’s evocative choreography nailed already; from David Gallo’s nifty set design to Tim Sutton’s sparkling musical direction, there is just a huge amount to enjoy here. Memphis may not be a searing insight into cultural appropriation or how an intellectual treatise on how race and music intersect but nor is it trying to be, instead it’s an energetic and slick piece of downright entertainment featuring what could well be some of the best musical work in the West End at the moment.