By Frank O'Donnell, Contributing Writer
It’s the 50s. Perry Como rules the popular music charts. But in Memphis, there’s a subculture of “race music” – rhythm and blues performed by blacks. In the 1950s in Memphis – heck, in a lot of other places too – that sort of thing simply had to stay underground. In this world, you can earn a parental slap just for listening to this kind of music.
Until Huey Calhoun comes along. Huey’s a young white guy who can’t hold a job but does hold “race music” deep in his soul. He parlays a one-day gig selling records in a local department store into an on-air disc jockeying job and for a while, rides the rails of superstardom by making “race music” mainstream in Memphis.
That’s the plot driving “Memphis,” the newest Broadway musical strutting its stuff on stage at the Providence Performing Arts Center. The music is original – composed by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan. It’s absolutely true to the time, but has a pop-rock sensibility to it that will have you tapping your toes. (I don’t like to be cliché, but trust me, if you don’t tap your toes at least twice in this one, get your hearing checked.)
There are wonderful and powerful songs in this show, matched by wonderful and powerful voices. Rhett George as Gator brings down the house with “Say A Prayer,” a feat met and beaten by Julie Johnson as Mama in “Change Don’t Come Easy.” Will Mann as Bobby gets to belt out “Big Love,” and Horace V. Rogers as Delray shines in “Underground” and “She’s My Sister.” (RIGHT: Bryan Fenkart as Huey Calhoun and the Broadway Cast Photo credit Randy Morrison)
Felicia Boswell is wonderful as Felicia, the budding star of Beale Street and the love interest for Huey. She stands out in every song, particularly “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails.” And Bryan Fenkart does a great job as Huey, especially with “The Music In My Soul,” which sets the tone for the entire show, and “Memphis Lives In Me.” He shows a flair for comedy as well, especially with his live on-air reads for Dupont Beer.
“Memphis” is a winner. A toe-tapping feel-good sort of musical that will have you humming a medley on your way out of the theater.
[“Memphis” runs through December 9 at PPAC. Call 401.421.ARTS or visit www.ppacri.org for more information.]
Frank O'Donnell is a comedian, playwright and actor, covering the arts and
entertainment beat for both 630wpro.com and The Valley Breeze newspapers
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