“Memphis” – ASU Gammage

This review aired on KBAQ March 7, 2013


Broadway Across America – Tempe, ASU Gammage
Tempe, AZ

On Broadway, “Memphis” was a high spirited delight.  After all, it won four 2010 Tony Awards including Best Musical.  The tour that plays ASU Gammage this week is a faithful re-creation of the rollicking Broadway original and it’s one of the best new musicals to play here.  It has an unflagging beat as the show explores racial prejudice in Tennessee during the early 1950s with pulsating vibrancy and pointed realism.  It was appalling how bigoted whites were toward Blacks back then.

With an insightful book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and wonderful songs by David Bryan, “Memphis” is set at an all-Black radio station, where Huey, patterned after a real Memphis DJ, shocks station regulars including singer Felicia by taking early Black rock ‘n’ roll music to white listeners.  Skepticism reigns but Huey creates a new audience as he spreads interest in the hot early rhythm and blues, pop, and country music.  He promises Felicia a chance at stardom but her success takes her to New York after Huey falls hard for her.

“Memphis” sizzles with throbbing life as the struggles to get Black singers accepted complicate things and Huey’s affair with Felicia initially threatens his career.  His devotion, though, to what he believes in carries him to fame.

“Memphis’” songs have lusty rhythmic beauty and they keep the show moving with spirited sparkle and lightening energy as displayed in Sergio Trujillo’s jazzy dance numbers and Christopher Ashley’s breezy staging.  It’s impossible to sit still while watching “Memphis.”  It’s that kind of soul-inspiring show.

The touring cast recreates the Broadway ensemble’s brilliance from Bryan Fenkart’s never idle Huey to Felicia Boswell’s excitingly alive vocals as Felicia and she effectively stresses the initial struggles of Black singers.  You can’t help but get involved with this pair.  Others amaze including Julie Johnson as Huey’s originally prejudiced Mother, Gladys, who transforms before our eyes as she begins to appreciate Black artists.  Although the three key radio station personalities beside Felicia were all understudies opening night, there wasn’t a misstep as they played their roles with convincing sincerity.

“Memphis” is the third sparkling ASU Gammage Broadway show this season where past season tours have not always duplicated Broadway razzle dazzle.  On March 13, ASU Gammage announces the 2013/14 local Broadway season.  I have high hopes that this season’s shimmering brilliance will continue.  “Memphis” continues through Sunday, March 10.  For tickets, call the ASU Gammage Ticketmaster box office at 800-982-2787 or order tickets online at www.asugammage.com.

Grade: A