Review: 'Memphis'

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

By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

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, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

Memphis: At the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets,  through Sunday. Tickets:  $20-$100. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway.

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