Colorful, energetic, and chock-full of heart, “Memphis” is the best surprise to happen to East Lansing since the early cherry blossom explosion last week. And like that brief dash of summer we had, “Memphis” is a real scorcher.
Energetic music and powerhouse performances aside, at its heart “Memphis” is just a really, really sweet love story. With music and lyrics by David Bryan and lyrics and book by Joe DiPietro, “Memphis” won the Tony for best musical in 2009.
“Memphis” tells the story of hyperactive hillbilly Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) who falls in love with R&B singer Felicia Farrell (Felicia Boswell) just as the cracks were starting to show in the Jim Crow laws in the mid-1950s. Oh yeah — Huey is white and Felicia is black. He wants to kickstart a DJ career by playing “race music” (i.e., rock and roll); she wants to be a famous recording artist. Of course, it’s the music that brings them together.
The DNA of almost every musical styling from the time — rock and roll, R&B, jazz, gospel — is integrated effortlessly into each song. “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night” plays as a rollicking longing for an end to segregation, as does “Scratch My Itch,” in which the white kids are quite audibly longing for something less sedate than Perry Como. “Someday” and “Love When All Else Fails” are “American Idol”-ready audition selections. And the dynamic “Say a Prayer” starts with a pin-drop silence that builds into a full gospel roar that propels the audience into the lobby for the intermission. The music seamlessly weaves its way into and out of thestory, sometimes creeping into a conversation before bursting free on its own accord, sometimes cleverly integrated as aperformance-within-a-performance.
The only aspect that gets a bit grating is Fenkart’s Huey-as-Ernest-P.-Worrell routine (you half-expect a stray “Hey Vern!” to escape from his slack jaw). Could he have dialed back the spastic goober-ness of Huey a little? Sure. It would have made the character less of a caricature and made Felicia’s attraction to him all the more believable, but you can’t really argue with a full house of raucous laughter — and the audience ate him up on opening night. Julie Johnson’s character of Huey’s mother has one of the most entertaining arcs to watch. She morphs from a racist blue-collar Southern woman into a sassy, not-as-racist cheerleader for her son — and she has easily the most fun song of the bunch, “Change Don’t Come Easy.”
Likewise, Kent Overshown is a real treat. He threatens several times to steal the show as Bobby, a janitor who gets his big shot at stardom on live TV with the barnstormer “Big Love.” His big lug aw-shucks-iness belies a fleet-footed charm machine, who executes some surprise moves. And there’s just not enough room here to gush over Boswell’s multi-octave tour-de-force, but suffice it to say you’ll be brushing away tears after one of her heart-rending solos.
The “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” earnestness of “Memphis” is a little corny, but with race relations in the news yet again this week, the timing seems to be right. At one point, a black character lowers his shirt to reveal scars incurred as a youth from “taking a sip at a white drinking fountain.” It’s at once a sign of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 28, Thursday, March 29
8 p.m. Friday, March 30; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 31; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 1
$30-$67; $25 students