Thursday, January 12, 2012

Theater Review: Memphis -- The Bushnell

Felicia Boswell, Rhett George, Bryan Fenkart Will Mann. Photo by Paul Kolnik
Hockadoo! This Tour Spins a Fantastical Reproduction of the Original
By Lauren Yarger
Tours come and tours go – some of them more memorably than others, but the national tour of Tony-Award-winning Memphis playing at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts might just be one of the closest to the Broadway originals you’ll ever see.

Top-notch performances by leads Felicia Boswell, Bryan Fenkart and a triple-threat ensemble propel the show with music and lyrics by David Bryan (formerly of Bon Jovi) and a cohesive book by Joe DiPietro (who co-wrote lyrics with Bryan) into contention for the title “best tour to come through Hartford” (and if you read my reviews regularly, you know that means something).

The story involves an interracial romance in a races-don't-mix 1950s Memphis at the birth of rock and roll. Huey (Fenkart) finds his niche, and the music of his soul, in the rhythm and blues of black clubs in the city like the one owned by Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington), where his sister Felicia (Boswell) sings. The free-spirited white man, with a bizarre taste in clothes (Paul Tazewell, costume design), is given a cautious welcome by the club’s regulars including shy singer Bobby (Will Mann) and Gator (Rhett George), who has been mute since seeing his father lynched. 
Local radio station owner Mr. Simmons (William Parry) gives Huey his big chance as an on-air host where he spins the "fantastical" black music he loves. Simmons is horrified, but it turns out white teenagers love the stuff too and the station, its advertisers and Huey head toward big profits. Huey becomes a local celebrity booking concerts and rising to host his own “American Bandstand”-like TV show with a shot to go national. His impromptu cry of “hockadoo!” excites the teens, turning them into gyrating and dancers and worrying their parents that the word means something “dirty.”
Hidden from the public, however, is his romantic relationship with Felicia.  Huey’s mother (a sensational Julie Johnson) objects, as does Delray, the former because of prejudice, the latter because he fears for his sister’s safety. Delray’s fears prove to be justified, but Huey is convinced that times are changing and that the couple can be happy together -- openly -- in Memphis. The chance for Felicia to break out as a star, and to feel safe, might only happen if she leaves for New York, however. 

Bryan’s bouncy, catchy tunes are put to action-packed choreography by Sergio Trujillo (it’s a real work out for the ensemble, which executes the dance numbers perfectly). Fenkart and Boswell’s vocal cords get a work out as well as they satisfy by nailing tune after tune (Fenkart sounds amazingly like Chad Kimball, who starred in the Broadway production, where he was the standby for Huey).
“The Music of My Soul,” “Everybody Wants to Be Black on Saturday Night,” "Someday,” Love Will Stand,” Memphis Lives in Me” and “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll” have the audience bopping along. Christopher Jahnke is the Music Producer/Supervisor. Alvin Hough, Jr. conducts the excellent nine-member band. Memphis is one of those rare shows where each song stands on its own and there is enough variety between ballad and hop to keep it interesting before DiPietro's humor-laced script.

The tour, ably directed by Christopher Ashley, seems tighter than his Broadway production, for which he received a Tony nomination. Sets, designed by David Gallo are scaled back some here for travel, but don’t lose any of their appeal (recording artists appearing in the label of 45 records above the radio station is nicely done) and lighting throughout (designed by Howell Binkley) enhances the story. A scene depicting the sudden appearance of Rev. Hobson (Kent Overshown), the pastor of a black church with a gospel choir that Huey recommends to his teen audience and where his mother discovers the truth of her prejudice, is expertly done. 

Spin on over to The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave, Hartford, and catch this fantastical one before it's off the charts. The show runs through Sunday. For ticket and performance information, call 860- 987-5900.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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