Theatre Review: Memphis The Musical



With today's Broadway dominated by revivals and adaptations, where do you have to go to see a show you haven't already seen on the silver screen? The answer, it appears, is Tennessee. Memphis: The Musical, the 2010 Tony Award winner concludes Fairwinds' 2012/2013 Orlando Broadway Across America season with a weeklong stand at the Bob Carr, is a rarity these days: a musical with a brand-new script and score not drawn from the CD or DVD shelf.

Huey Calhoon (Bryan Fenkart) is a destitute department store employee who dreams of being a DJ; Felicia (Felicia Boswell) sings the blues in a crappy juke joint. They could be a perfect couple, except for three things: he's white, she's black, and they're in the Deep South circa 1950. As they aid each other in their ascents from poverty to fame -- hers as a recording star, his by introducing "race music" to TV-watching white teens -- the couple is inexorably drawn together, despite his mother Gladys (Julie Johnson) and her brother Delray (Horace V. Rogers) leading the rest of the town in trying to tear them apart.

The beautifully brassy Boswell is by turns feisty and fragile as Felicia, and the supporting cast -- led by Johnson and Rogers, along with Rhett George and Will Mann as Huey's pals -- is uniformly strong. But, despite a solid singing voice, Fenkart's sidelong perma-grimace and Gomer Pyle dialect drove me to distraction. His cartoonish take might be inspired by Dewey Phillips (the real-life Memphis DJ whose life loosely inspired the show) but all I could see on stage was David Arquette imitating Popeye.

Memphis' plot seems at first like a conventional play on Romeo and Juliet, but writer Joe DiPietro's book takes some unanticipated bittersweet turns. His lyrics don't have quite the same depth (one song basically repeats "she's my sister" for six stanzas), and the score (by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan) settles for paying tribute to the era's R&B and gospel classics without creating any choruses catchy enough to hum as you walk away. But the unmemorable music makes a perfectly competent accompaniment for Sergio Trujillo's explosive choreography, which cleverly quotes dance crazes of the day; the dancing, along with the fluidly cinematic scene transitions director Christoper Ashley creates with David Gallo's sliding set, are the real stars of the show.

Ultimately, Memphis isn't as warm or tuneful as Hairspray, which covers similar thematic territory, but it does acknowledge the dangers integration advocates faced during the dark days of anti-miscegenation laws with much more honesty. And while any multi-million-dollar musical is bound to trivialize complex issues like cultural exploitation, Memphis treats them with more seriousness than most. Memphis may not be a perfect show, but (caveats aside) it is a perfectly polished piece of high-energy entertainment with its heart in the right place.


We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club for as little as $5 a month.