The last decade has produced a bunch of hit musicals about the 1950s and 60s: Hairspray in 2002; Caroline, or Change in 2004; Memphis in 2009. Even Hollywood jumped on board in 2006, reviving the 1981 Broadway hit Dream Girls. So what is it about this time period that nurtures so many works about (more or less) the same topic? Three things: the Civil Rights movement, the fashion, and, most of all, the music.
Each musical approaches the three themes with its own flair, ranging from upbeat and bouncy (Hairspray) to introspective and deep (Caroline). Memphis, currently on tour and playing at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts, is a little bit of both. Instead of cross analyzing and picking apart each actor and musician involved in the show (all of whom are stellar, by the way), I’m going to take a cue from the soul of this dynamic and heartfelt show and review this show in a way that represents it best: as a mixtape metaphor.
Track 1: Black & White
Obviously, you can’t talk about this era without addressing the intense tension that existed between whites and blacks—especially in the South. Memphis author/lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer/lyricist David Bryan ease into the issue, creating a kind of happy-melody-with-dark-words tone. When the main character, white boy Huey (Bryan Fenkart), walks into the all-black R&B club owned by Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington), it takes just one song to smooth things over. But throughout the show, these black/white clashes get less and less genial, until eventually the melody of the songs and mood of the scenes matches their deeply powerful messages.
Track 2: Pipes
As you’d expect from any Broadway musical, these people can sing. But that’s just the beginning here. Felicia Boswell (Felicia) has a voice that would impress even the harshest of critics. I mean it—this woman doesn’t just hit the right notes, she makes those notes sound better than they ever have or ever will again. Think Jennifer Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls, but for Every. Single. Song. I saw teenage boys wiping away tears after Boswell sang “Colored Woman.” That’s something.
Track 3: Unexpected Twists
Shows don’t win Tony Awards (Memphis won “Best Musical” in 2010) with just strong music or a strong story. They need both. In Memphis, just when you think you know what’s coming next, the plot twists. Enough well-placed surprises are peppered throughtout the script as to hold your interest, but not so many that it’s a distraction. My favorite: Mama (Julie Johnson) shocking the audience into an awed state of delight with “Change Don’t Come Easy.” If she can get a mild-mannered Minnesotan audience to whistle, cheer, and clap along to a gospel tune, then Johnson can do just about anything in my book.
Track 4: Impact
It’s one thing to get swept up in a show during the performance; it’s another for the show to continue its hold over you during the drive home, the next morning, the following evening, etc. Memphis has that special something—that deeper sense of purpose and meaning that many shows attempt to find, but few accomplish. More than flashy songs, gorgeous costumes, and impressive talent, Memphis has clever writing and well-balanced mix of history, culture, humor, and character development. It strikes that envied and powerful chord of being at once impactful, relevant, and entertaining. If I could give it two standing ovations, I would.
Through March 25
Ordway Center for Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul, 651-224-4222, ordway.org