Review of Memphis The Musical
The Tony-winning Broadway hit finally comes to the West End, bringing grit and bucket-loads of soul.
This American import has taken a long time to make the leap across the pond and grace the London stage, but it has been well worth the wait. For what the musical lacks in formal inventiveness, it more than makes up for in musicality.
Memphis The Musical is a boy-meets-girl story set in the swinging city of Memphis, Tennessee, in 1955. We follow the show’s hero, Huey Calhoun (Killian Donnelly), a white guy down on his luck who manages to talk his way into one of Memphis’s iconic Beale Street nightclubs, where he becomes fascinated by the sensual rhythm and blues music.
This American import has taken a long time to make the leap across the pond and grace the London stage, but it has been well worth the wait.
Enter Felicia (Beverley Knight), a beautiful black singer. Calhoun becomes as obsessed with Felicia as he does R&B music. He then charms his way into a big-time Memphis radio station, taking the role of DJ, and starts to replace the bland white pop music with rich and evocative R&B music, ruffling more than a few feathers in the process. The problem is that Tennessee’s stringent segregation laws cut straight between his romance with Felicia, and she is cornered into having to decide between her newfound career as a popular singer or her love for Huey Calhoun.
This terrific tale of love, music and the brutality of segregation is based on actual events and people, with the character of Huey Calhoun loosely based on real life DJ and promoter of black music, Dewey Phillips. Writer Joe DiPietro and songwriter David Bryan of Bon Jovi fame bring this story to life in the most entertaining way possible; they let the music to the talking.
The show is packed with musical numbers that capture the essence of each moment. The delirious excitement of political change is told through the song ‘Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night’; the soaring ode to the city of Memphis is conveyed perfectly through the rousing ‘Memphis Lives in Me’; and the song that launches Felicia into the world of white popular music, ‘Someday’, is apt in illustrating the subversive power of music to cross racial boundaries. This is no jukebox musical that recycles old, memorable hits. It is a brand new score that was written with the musical’s story and characters in mind – and it works!
No matter how good the music, a show is nothing unless that music can be performed at a world-class standard, and what could be more world-class than international superstar Beverley Knight. This soul diva recently made the transition to the stage in The Bodyguard at the Adelphi Theatre and the singer seems to have caught the theatrical bug, as she now treads to boards of the Shaftesbury Theatre with the all the confidence and skill of an experienced West End leading lady.
She possesses all the qualities of a West End star: charm, stage presence and vocal power. In her role as Felicia, Knight demonstrates a poise and emotional range that lifts the often clichéd dialogue into the realms of believability and her voice is equally as measured, allowing for moments of quiet purity alongside moments of unbridled belting.
The audience is asked to believe that Felicia has the talent to become a global singing sensation and, with Knight, there is no doubt whatsoever that this is achievable.
Her co-star Killian Donnelly is less well known, but no less able. Donnelly was launched into the world of musical theatre through his role in The Commitments at the Palace Theatre and now, in his role as Huey Calhoun, he is given permission to set free the full range of his impressive voice.
A show is nothing unless that music can be performed at a world-class standard, and what could be more world-class than international superstar Beverley Knight.
It is quite a shock to the system when Donnelly lets fly and he seems to inject energy into the production. There is a playful chemistry between Donnelly and Knight that brings the audience along with their story and the final climactic moments where the fate of the pair is decided has everyone rooting for the couple.
Director Christopher Ashley has steered the busy musical with a clear and steady hand and he handles the blindingly obvious plot twists with a well-judged level of irony that stops Memphis The Musical descending into pastiche.
As an entertaining night out, Memphis the Musical is a shoe-in, but the unexpected surprise is that serious problems like racial prejudice are tackled head-on and the messages hit home without suppressing the frivolous enjoyment of the production as a whole.