Pain. Grief. Fear. Joy. Love. Hope. These are all feelings that were evoked when I was lucky enough to attend the opening night performance of MEMPHIS (2010 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical) at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday night.
MEMPHIS takes place in Memphis, TN (obviously) in the 1950's. Huey, a young white man, wanders into the Beale Street Club (a black rhythm and blues club), igniting the fears, prejudices, and curiosities of club patrons. Huey explains to everyone at the club that the music called to him and that he has an intense passion and admiration of their music. At the club, Huey meets Felicia. She is the clubs headliner and Huey falls for her at first sight. Huey promises Felicia that he will get her music played on mainstream radio, even though he cannot even hold a job at a department store. In spite of his lack of experience and his naiveté, Huey eventually gets a temporary DJ job at a local radio station. His popularity quickly grows, and he is given a full time radio show, playing "black" music for a "mainstream" audience. Along the way, Huey and Felicia fall in love. Being it is the 1950's, in segregated Memphis, this causes a great deal of issues for the couple and for them as individuals. They struggle with their own prejudices, the prejudice of their family, friends, and society. As Felicia's popularity as singer grows, Huey's popularity wanes, causing more friction for the couple.
Throughout the show, the music plays as important role in helping to tell the story as it does in the lives of the characters. Songs like "The Music of My Soul" and "Someday" help propel the story forward while also illustrating the thoughts and feelings of the characters. I was excited by the variety of songs and, even more so, by how much many of them stick in your head after you leave.
The company of MEMPHIS is an exceptional one. Huey, played by Bryan Fenkart, is a nerdy misfit redneck that finds his purpose in life by introducing the R&B music to a New Group of people. Fenkart has an innate ability to physically transform into his character, adding much depth to his portrayal of Huey. As Felicia, Felicia Boswell portrays a young woman on the verge of fame and excitement. The way that Boswell reveals Felicia's excitement, confusion, pain and internal struggles is beautiful and touching. Boswell brings honesty, integrity, and vulnerability to the character, helping to bridge together Felicia's relationships. Fenkart and Boswell play off each other well and have an incredible chemistry on the stage. Both have voices bring life to the songs, and goose bumps to your arms. The supporting cast is also outstanding and a true ensemble. They feed off the energy of the rest of the cast, helping to build a cohesion that is unmistakable.
For me, the final song of the first act, "Say a Prayer", was a pivotal moment of the performance. At this point, the characters have reached a struggle that they are unsure they can overcome. This prayer is a call for peace and change related to marriage, race relations, and societal perceptions of these. It really resonated with me more than ever, given the current state of our nation - the struggles with gay marriage, the economy, and relations with other nations. I was pleasantly surprised at how much this particular song struck me, and how much thought it generated in the hours afterwards. It is not often that such an entertaining, thought provoking, emotional show comes around. Check it out while you can!
MEMPHIS is playing at the Marcus Center for Performing Arts now through January 13th. Tickets can be purchased online at http://marcuscenter.org/Tickets-Memphis-Milwaukee.html or by calling the box office at (414) 273-7206.