Memphis, a small town in Tennessee, not too far from Mississippi, conjures a romanticised image of the1950s rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues era and its founding musicians such as Aretha Franklin and hip swaying Elvis Presley. Memphis the musical, which is directed by Christopher Ashley and now showing at the Shaftesbury Theatre, captures all of this in a electrifying, ground breaking production with platinum selling artist Beverley Knight as its main star.
Memphis, winner of four 2010 Tony Awards including Best Musical with an Award-winning score written by founding member of Bon Jovi David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, tells the story of Felicia (Knight) and Hugey, sung by distinguished musical star Killian Donnelly, who fell in love during the age of segregation with the burgeoning rise of racism slowly dissolved through music; it is loosely based on the career of radio disc jokey Dewey Philips and an amalgamation of known and unknown rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues singers of the time.
The music, directed by Tim Sutton, is exhilarating and charismatically catchy; it makes you want to boost out of your seat, start singing and clapping with its fun combination of ballads, gospel singing, and musical genius. The production’s ensemble of dancers also get it down to a T; they are unbelievably talented, superseding the challenges of Sergio Trujillo’s fast and thrilling dance choreography.
Memphis, although touching on a very sentimental and highly political time in American history manages to add ounces of humour without overshadowing the deeper issue. There is much reference to racial slurs such as ‘nigger music’, ‘race music’, ‘cracker boy’ or ‘all negro show’ which will undoubtedly make audiences gasp, as they did in my viewing, but its just a small part of why the writers wrote Memphis. As David Bryan explained it, it is ‘to show what hate looks like, how stupid it is and how wrong it is for humanity’ and this is essentially what makes Memphis clued-up, serious, yet enjoyable at the same time; you actually feel like you are getting an education.
Knight is consistently good at bringing the house down as she sings with passion and fumes power into the lyrics of ‘Love Will Stand When All Else Fails’, ‘Stand Up’ and ‘Someday’ (she received numerous standing ovations throughout the evening I viewed her). Knight’s role however didn’t require her to do anything outside of a singer’s life, which in many ways made her comfortable and well-matched for the role of Felicia and living up to the expectations of her last role in Body Guard.
Hugey, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Felicia. Donnelly, also vocally talented for the West End stage, played an eccentrically dressed, fearless and politically incorrect Deejay who has an overwhelming streak of cheese, in him. There were certain moments where it wasn’t obvious if it was Hugey or Donnelly on the stage. Overjoyed and enthusiastic as he performed on stage, the cheese could have been added in subtler chunks as it didn’t quite mirror the musical as a whole; yet he did a tremendous job of harmonising with Knight.
Claire Machin as Hugey’s mother is also a great watch bringing out laughter and a sadder, more realistic context and tone to the musical. Roland Bell as Felicia’s brother also did this who performed well. Jason Pennycooke was also charming on the stage and Tyrone Huntley succeeded in shocking the audience with his ability to sing fervently like a hero from being presented as a mute character at the beginning.
With a stage designed with vinyls, disco lights, moving pillars and black and white film projections by David Gallo, Memphis is entertaining for those who love rock ‘n’ rock and soul. It’s interesting how Hairspray was also produced on the same year as Memphis as there are many parallels and similarities with the show.