"Memphis" at the Ordway Touches Deep and Rocks the House

Bryan Fenkart (Huey) in the National Tour of MEMPHIS. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

It’s not every day that you sit through a musical that gives you shivers, makes you laugh, scream, and stomp your feet, but the newest Broadway touring hit at the Ordway Theater, “Memphis,” does all that and more.

The show is loosely based on the stories of revolutionary disc jockeys of the 1950s who dared to play rhythm and blues and rock and roll, or “race” music, at a time when only “colored” radio stations played music by African Americans. But while the story is a history lesson, its emotional pull is far deeper.

It’s about making a difference, standing up for what you believe in (even if it makes you a “rebel”), and creating change out of hope and love. (If that sounds Jewish – a little Tikkun Olamy – don’t be surprised. The Tony-award winning original score was written by David Bryan of Bon Jovi, an MOT).

The musical numbers reflect the dramatic story not just of race relations in the South but of a love story that transcends those communities: the love of a white man and a black woman.

We fall in love with them as they fall in love with each other.  The young black singer, Felicia, played by Felicia Boswell, is gorgeous and a showstopper as a dancer and just about unreal as a singer.  The Ordway audience just couldn’t get enough of her, cheering her on and screaming – literally screaming – after her moving solos.  Her love interest? The dorky white disc jockey Huey Calhoun, played by the endearing Bryan Fenkart, who wants nothing more than to bring black soul music – including hers – that he hears in the clubs on Beale Street into the homes of white families; well, that and to kiss her. His singing is pretty fabulous as well, and his humor keeps what could be an otherwise sometimes difficult to take story of racism engaging, upbeat, and inspiring.

Quentin Earl Darrington (Delray), Felicia Boswell (Felicia) and the national touring cast of MEMPHIS . Photo by Paul Kolnik

The community that surrounds the two lovers as they set up their musical lives and their careers is filled with colorful characters like Delray, Felicia’s overprotective brother and music producer, played powerfully by Quentin Earl Darrington, and Huey’s mother, played by Julie Johnson, a hilariously obnoxious dowdy woman who takes the audience with her as she morphs from intolerant of her son’s work with “race” music and his “girl” to a supportive soul singer rockin’ and shakin’ the audience with her as she sings “Change Don’t Come Easy.”

I swear I couldn’t pick a favorite song if you forced me too.  The range of the music in this show is so varied that I’d have to pick a song I loved in each style.

There are the upbeat rockin’ dance numbers like “Underground” which had me snapping my fingers and tapping my toes while my eyes were glued to the amazing dancing on stage, and my ears filled with the phenomenal voices that seemed to transform the Ordway Theater around me into a sexy blues den.

Or the moving, chill-inducing songs like “Colored Woman” about the struggles and lack of choices faced by black women in the South.

Or how could you not love “The Music of My Soul,” Huey, Felicia and Company’s ode to the music that is the heart of this play?

Really, what’s not to love? The music, the dancing, and the story that whisked me with it, along with the rest of the audience. We all could have given the Company a standing ovation long into the night.

If you see one play this month, nay, this Spring, make it “Memphis.” You’ll be singing “Someday” and “Memphis Lives in Me” way after you’ve left the theater. Maybe I’ll even see you at the theater for an encore.

*The FTC made me do it: Disclosure of Material Connection: TC Jewfolk received free tickets to  “Memphis” in the hope that we would mention it on TC Jewfolk. But getting the tickets for free doesn’t mean that we were obligated to give a glowing review. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Blah, blah, blah…