By Michael H. Margolin
In Act II of “Memphis,” Bryan Fenkart takes center stage. As Huey, the white disk jockey in Memphis in the ’50s who brought black music to radio and subsequently black dancers and singers to television, he sings the soulful, slam-dunk “Memphis Lives in Me.” It hits the sweet spot and is one of many high spots in a show that has not one lackluster moment.
Fenkart, who has the unlikeliest name for a Broadway leading man, is one of the most authentic talents to pass through our town in a road tour musical in many a moon. Looking a bit like a geeky Josh Charles (Will Gardner in “The Good Wife”), he delivers character rather than charm, intensity rather than glitz. He moves and sings like nobody else, and the show is worth seeing just for him.
There are, however, tons of reasons to see this show. It won four Tonys in 2010 – for Best Musical, Best Original Score (David Bryan and Joe DiPietro), Best Book (also DiPietro) and Best Orchestrations (Bryan and Daryl Waters).
The proof is right up there on the Fisher Theatre stage.
Other New York awards included Outstanding Choreography by Sergio Trujillo and My Own Award for costumes by Paul Tazewell – organic, retro and calling attention to the cast, not the designer. (Felicia Boswell’s second act onstage costume change is like a great moment on “Project Runway.”)
Put it all together and it adds up to musical comedy of a kind that has seemed to be overcome on Broadway by English imports and musical adaptations of simplistic novels for teenage girls. This show is chock full of dancers and singers that pump enough oxygen into the house to carry astronauts to the moon – careful, you might get high without knowing it.
Based on the life of the late Dewey Phillips, thought by many musical historians to be the person most responsible for integrating radio in Memphis between 1948 and 1958 by playing the music of black and Caucasian musicians, the show pairs his fictional counterpart, Huey, with Felicia , a black singer he “discovers,” loves, then loses to fame as he sinks into relative obscurity. (No, it is not a mawkish re-run of “A Star is Born.”) Felicia is captured in splendiferous voice by the eponymous Felicia Boswell, who would win any “American Idol” hands down.
The supporting cast is remarkably fresh, as if it were the first night of the tour, rather than many months on the road. Horace V. Rogers, William Parry, Rhett George and Will Mann exude energy with finesse and remarkable vocals. The dancers are particularly wonderful in Trujillo’s choreography, which has wit and stays very far away from Broadway dance cliche. The direction by Christopher Ashley is also free of cliche, showing enormous savvy in putting the action in all the right places. The several scenes of Huey’s television show onstage and simultaneously on a large screen in black and white are, in one of today’s overused praise words, awesome.
A special word about Julie Johnson, who plays Huey’s mama, a.k.a. Gladys. In Act I she is a frumpy nag who earns her laughs honestly; in Act II she is Huey’s successful mother, who has listened to gospel in a Memphis church, and in the magnificent “Change Don’t Come Easy,” she demonstrates that struggle with her glorious soprano, moving into gospel riffs with a high note or two to blow our heads up. Wow!
Okay: Since I grew up listening to rhythm and blues and dancing the dirty chicken in Judy Gotthelf’s basement, sweating and deep into teen depravity, I have to issue a couple of codicils to the above. The music is not really authentic to the time, and nobody really dressed that way; guys wore Levis and gals wore pegged skirts and tight sweaters. Though based on certain facts about the integration of radio, it does not document what it preaches, while, dramatically, making the point about racism in our fair country. So I have had my moment of critical “truth” and I can say, in all honesty, it’s a damn fine show.
Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tuesday-Sunday through April 21. 2 hours 35 minutes. $34-89. 313-872-1000. http://www.BroadwayinDetroit.com