Supercharged energy brings 'Memphis' home

The touring show of the Broadway musical “Memphis” started its national run at the Orpheum theater 18 months ago. The Tony-winning hit is back now with the rocking, soulful tale of love, race and music all shook up in a blend of 1950s-era radio with a dollop of Beale Street.

It’s a thoroughly agreeable experience, and the production sizzles because of the attention to detail. Every iota of choreography, comedy and dialogue is polished to a fare-thee-well, or, in a word that protagonist Huey Calhoun would prefer, “Hockadoo!”

The story, if you’ve not been paying attention, starts with the high-octane white kid Huey finding music to love in an all-black Beale Street bar. He also finds a woman to love which, in 1952’s segregated Memphis, is a high-risk proposition.

Huey’s character — inspired by “Daddy-O” Dewey Phillips — is undeterred and single-handedly hijacks a radio station and turns Memphis around by introducing race music to white kids, which results in ... well, we pretty much know the rest.

Huey’s intuition is right on, but he still needs educating in how things work. He gets his lessons from Felicia, the beauty he’s smitten with who has a golden voice.

The musical is a celebration of loving where you’re from while embracing change. While it’s fixed in a time and place and honors both, it’s not about Memphis in the 1950s. The tunes are more about stage musicals than the early days of rock. There’s nothing wrong with that — the respect for the soul, gospel, rock and R&B roots is all there. But you won’t feel the juicy memories you get with “The Million Dollar Quartet” that played the Orpheum a month ago.

Similarly, the representation of race is more for storytelling purposes with actual history getting only a perfunctory treatment.

Nonetheless, musicals aren’t about historic precision but about entertainment and feelings. And everything from the performances to set design to the supercharged energy are devoted to that end.

Several actors are returning in their roles from the first “Memphis” go-round. Bryan Fenkart is perfectly twitchy and engaging as Huey. Felicia Boswell is back as Felicia, complete with an apparently supernatural voice, along with loads of poise and presence. Julie Johnson has the plum role of Mama, going from frump to diva in one hilarious transformation.

Rhett George’s Gator and Horace V. Rogers’ Delray are also delights to experience.

And the anthemic “Memphis Lives In Me” unfailingly stirs the audience into unrestrained ovations. Which is as it should be.

© 2013 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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