It is not very often you come across a musical with both heart and soul but that is indeed the case with Christopher Ashley’s production of the Tony Award winning show Memphis (Shaftesbury Theatre).
In the underground nightclubs of 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, a new era is dawning as the first incredible sounds of rock n roll and blues and gospel are emerging into the mainstream.
Huey Calhoun is a poor but ambitious white guy who inveigles his way into a night club in the segregated city’s black quarter where he falls in love with both the intoxicating rhythm n blues sound , and a young black singer, Felicia. Huey determines to bring her voice and her music out of the clubs and onto the airwaves of America. In order to achieve this he insinuates himself into one of Memphis’s mainstream radio stations as a DJ and substitutes R&B for the blandness of Patti Page and Perry Como with devastating results. But the strict racial laws inevitably cast a shadow over his romance with Felicia, and she is forced to choose between Huey and her burgeoning career.
This musical adapted from a book by Joe Di Pietro and inspired by a true-life story, may have a traditional boy meets girl plot but it also demonstrates the rigid brutality of segregation and the subversive power of popular music to change both hearts and minds. One of the most shocking moments comes when Huey is told if he wants to make it on one of the big networks he will have to replace the black dancers he has used on his local TV Show for white ones. I will also long remember the moment when just as it looks as if love has successfully crossed the South’s racial divide, Huey is forced to pay the price for his actions when the rednecks attack Felicia with baseball bats.
The pounding musical score by David Byron, a founder member of Bon Jovi, captures in numbers like Everybody Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night the heady excitement of a time when pop was undergoing seismic change. Overall Byron and Di Pietro manage to skilfully interweave an exhilarating blend of musical genres into the storyline so that they complement rather than distract from the action.
Beverly Knight, who is undoubtedly one of the best soul singers around, combines charisma and power as the demure Felicia, while Irish born Killian Donnelly brings winning verve to the role of the rebel minded Huey, standing his ground with admirable resolve. Fine support is provided by Rolan Bell as Felicia’s gruff brother Delroy and Claire Machin as Huey’s amusing grumpy mother.
In all then, this is a gripping roof-raising show but one which also leaves you with a deep sense of unease.
Runs at Shaftesbury Theatre until Saturday 28 March.
Photography by Johan PerssonLast modified: April 7, 2021