Saturday, April 25, 2015

Review: 'Memphis'

The lively musical "Memphis" pulls into town, at the Academy of Music. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'Memphis'

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Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart in the "Memphis" national tour at the Academy of Music.

By Howard Shapiro

The pumping musical Memphis celebrates an America whose definition of freedom is always evolving. The national tour, which pulled into the Academy of Music on Tuesday and is staying through Sunday, delivers the show about the ‘50s with the same high-energy and spirit as its Broadway rendition.

Memphis, which is loosely based on a true story about a young Memphian who integrated the music on the city’s radio stations, won the best-musical Tony in 2010, and its popularity across demographics has helped producers turn it into a new Broadway experience, across formats.

The musical still runs there nightly — soon to reach its 1,000th performance — and the national tour travels the country, but it also was digitally shot on several cameras, then screened at movie theaters last year in across the country, and a DVD of the full show hit the stores this month.

It’s easy to see why Memphis is the vehicle for that sort of multi-media trial. With electrifying music and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, plus intricate, high-energy choreography by Sergio Trujillo (watch how he moves the dancers by their shoulders, hips and knees) and casts here and on Broadway that deliver the show as if it were a smoking plate of barbecued ribs from Beale Street, the show is a joy from beginning to end.

It tracks the trajectory of a white guy who connives his way onto Memphis radio as a disc jockey in the ‘50s. Then he introduces the city’s whites — who trivialized the sound blacks were making as “race music” and generally blocked it from their lives in the same way they segregated the black community — to the recordings blacks were making at the city’s walk-in-and-record studios. This is the music that became known as rhythm and blues and rock and roll, and it’s plentiful, and beautifully performed.

Memphis is a lot like Hairspray — it’s about tearing down racial walls. Set 10 years earlier than Hairspray, it has the same sweet sensibility about a serious issue. Its two national-tour leads, Bryan Fenkart as the brash, goofy DJ and Felicia Boswell as the black singer he falls for, are charming and big-voiced, and Quentin Earl Darrington and Will Mann run gracefully in other major roles. 

And a special bow to Julie Johnson, the white mama of our hero and an unlikely character to belt “Change Don’t Come Easy,” an in-your-face anthem about the pain that accompanies a new order. The whole country, of course, was singing some form of that song through the ’50s and ’60s, which is why we look back and respond to Memphis with a big, knowing smile.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,
Memphis: At the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets,  through Sunday. Tickets:  $20-$100. Information: 215-893-1999 or

About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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