By: Book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, music and lyrics by David Bryan; concept by George W. George
Directed by: Christopher Ashley
Choreography by: Sergio Trujillo
When: Through October 28, 2012
Tickets: $17.50-$79.50; call 1-408-792-4111 or visit broadwaysanjose.com
Show website: The show is touring through at least May 19, 2013. Visit www.memphisthemusical.com to see if it's coming your way.
Read Karen D'Souza's review of "Memphis" in the San Jose Mercury News.
to San Francisco Bay Area
It was a TheatreWorks evening on Tuesday at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, as Broadway San Jose opened the road show of the Tony-winning musical, "Memphis," for its eight-performance run.
"Memphis" began at the TheatreWorks New Works Festival in 2002, then had its world premiere at TheatreWorks, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, in 2004.
It bounced around a bit, then landed on Broadway in 2009, where it won a truckload of awards, including four Tonys.
Now it is back in the Bay Area for what can be called a triumphant return, so it's only right that a bunch of folks from TheatreWorks were in the building, as was announced from the stage before the show.
I bumped into a few of them myself, including TheatreWorks casting director Leslie Martinson, and James Monroe Iglehart, who originated a role in the play at TheatreWorks, then took it to Broadway, and Randy Adams, who was managing director of TheatreWorks when "Memphis" was workshopping there, and who became one of the show's lead producers, taking it to Broadway.
But more than that, anyone who knows TheatreWorks can see its handprints all over the show. It has at its core an important topic - racism in America. It has a lot of great music in it. It's fun.
The show is an imagined story that's not too far off from what actually happened back in the 1950s, when a very few white people started publically liking black music. In the play, the radio station WHTE (Get it?) just ended 1951 as the highest-rated station in Memphis, playing that safe, comfortable music for bored teens and their conservative parents. Meanwhile, a black disc jockey is playing blues and black rock music, "even though we only reachin' 'bout a mile across Downtown Memphis."
An illiterate white guy with a lot of swagger, Huey Calhoun, walks into an all-black club, Delray's, and announces he's going to make black music popular and turn Delray's sister, Felicia, into a star.
He's nearly thrown out, but makes his case well enough - helped by some very soulful singing -- to win over Felicia, although a rough road lies ahead for them, personally and professionally.
A lot of people alive today have no idea how bad things were back in those days, when blacks would be beaten or worse for using a "white" water fountain, and blacks were lynched for no reason by white thugs.
Huey tries a job in a white department store, selling records of black musicians, and the store manager says, "Son, this is nigger music. And there ain't no niggers here. You will pack your things and go."
Most of the audience on Tuesday at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts gasped when they heard the word "nigger."
I had to laugh at their reaction, because it showed how little they know or remember of that time, but I thought it was great that the show included that kernel of truth about what the United States was like in those days.
And, the show is a blast, with a lot of great music delivered by a fabulous cast, and a lot of huge laughs. It is a fun show, and one that keeps the audience jumping in their seats.
The music, by David Bryan (a founding member of Bon Jovi), is brilliant. It's not a whole lot like the black music of the 1950s, although elements of that can be heard. It takes elements from lots of the rock music that developed over the next six decades and kind of blends them into forms that work to tell this story.
And wow, does it ask a lot of the singers. Happily, the cast for this touring production is well up to it. Felica Boswell is the Kung Fu Panda of this show, smacking bases-clearing home runs several times, with amazing vocals that do that impressive kind of modern pop scat singing that was probably born in gospel churches, ages ago.
Bryan Fenkart, as Huey, is also a very impressive singer, but his main job is to be a high-energy huckster who gets us all believing that he can sell black music to a larger audience.
And, Fenkart has a gift for comic timing.
That is so rare among actors. Most of them are pushing to get through the lines, and can't deal with timing. And in comedy, timing is everything.
Felicia and Huey fall in love, but she thinks he is flat-out crazy if he thinks a white man and a black woman can be together in 1950s Tennessee.
"And you know someday I wanna have a family, a baby. How we gonna have a baby?"
Fenkart gets the timing just right. He waits two beats, a hopeful, sincere look on his face, and says, "The usual way?"
It doesn't really read as funny, but it gets a good laugh because Fenkart delivers the words exactly at the right time. A second too soon, nothing. A second too late, nothing. The audience hangs on the moment, and the burst of laughter is delicious.
Huey hustles his way into a radio station job, and sure enough, the white kids of Memphis love that jumpin' rhythm & blues -- rock 'n' roll -- music.
(That actually happened, to a degree, in the '50s. More often, though, white singers such as Pat Boone and Elvis Presley would do covers of black songs, and make more money than did the songs' creators. It wasn't until the late 1960s, really, that black musicians really started to enjoy some crossover success. There were black entertainers, but they were kept in their place. When British singer Petula Clark dared to hold Harry Belafonte's arm when taping a 1968 show, a sponsor freaked out, worried about viewers in the American south. Clark and her producer husband went ahead with it anyway, and the show was a great success. Today, thank God, that seems silly. Back then, it was a big deal.)
Huey starts to make some money, he and Felicia have a fine but secret romance, and then they are both offered a chance to go to New York, to the big time. Felicia likes it; they can be together in New York, openly. But then Huey, who is now a Memphis TV star, learns that in New York he won't be able to use the black dancers from his show. He opts to stay in Memphis. She leaves.
At one point, they are seen kissing in public. They are beaten with bats by white thugs. Some dialogue from when Huey takes her to Delray's club, just as Delray is telling a story:
DELRAY: All right, a few years ago now, this white boy, this crazy cracker - walked into my club. And he said he was gonna get my sister on the radio. And I didn't trust him, ya know, 'cause, well - he was white --
PARTYGOERS laugh. HUEY bursts through the club door carrying in FELICIA, who is bloody and beat up and barely conscious.
HUEY: Someone help -
DELRAY: Oh Jesus!
HUEY: They hurt her bad --
MYRNA: I'll call an ambulance!
HUEY: They came at us with bats ...
ROSCOE: Make sure it's a colored ambulance!
ISAIAH: Call a white one for Huey!
Well, that's the bitter truth of it. The way things were.
The way things are now, in most neighborhoods of this nation, anyway, skin color and who people love is much less of an issue. Thank God.
And, of course, there is all that wonderful music in this show. I've been tickled that friends of mine, including people who are not professionally involved in theater, have been posting lyrics from the show on Facebook, including this:
"Some of my favorite lyrics from 'Memphis the Musical' last night, from the song, 'Steal your Rock N Roll'
'Listen to your soul, listen to your soul,
Play it, obey it
Love it with your feet!
Heed it, you need it
Let it make you whole!
And if you listen to the beat
And hear what's in your soul -
You'll never let anyone
Steal your rock 'n' roll!'"
Well, there are five shows left. One tonight, and two each on Saturday and Sunday. Get your tickets!