Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Memphis - The Musical

Memphis - The Musical has been a West End hit for the last 10 months, following successful runs in the States, and it's not hard to see why. I went to see it at the Shaftesbury Theatre today and thought it was brilliant. OK, so the original music bears little relation to the rock and roll and rhythm and blues of the fifties that it claims to portray, but so what? There's an energy about the production, with some superb dance routines, that moves it well above the ordinary.
The story focuses on Huey Calhoun, a white disc jockey, loosely based on the real life Dewey Phillips, who kicks off a revolution in this racially divided city in the mid fifties by playing black music on a white radio station. He meets and falls in love with Felicia, a black R and B singer, which causes outrage in the community and upsets her brother and his mother. True love, needless to say, doesn't run smooth and his desire to stay in Memphis conflicts with her ambition to become a star. Racial segregation in Memphis is a constant theme and this is the dramatic background that brings the story to life.
It's the excitement of the performances, the commitment of the cast and the slickness of the production that make the show work. The main stars are Beverley Knight and Matt Cardle, both stars in their own right, but the show I saw featured their alternates Rachel John and Jon Robyns, both of whom were excellent. I was particularly impressed with Rachel's Felicia.
I have been a regular visitor to Memphis over the last few years and I will be there again in a few weeks time. It had a strangely downbeat feel to it when I first went there in 1989 - as though it had been forgotten, with a near derelict downtown. I've seen some changes for the better since then, but the city still looks a bit down at heel and has a racial divide which means that whites don't go to black clubs and vice versa. Yet whenever I've visited black juke joints such as Wild Bill's, in a black area of the city, I've been made to feel most welcome. Even back in 1989, when I first went to Beale Street, I was treated like an honored guest when I went to an exclusively black club.
The show manages to pick up on that division and, even though the music is all wrong - especially a couple of X Factor style numbers in the second half - there's enough of a feel for the atmosphere of the city to dispel any lack of belief. It's a joyous show, yet I was moved at times, and I know quite a few others in the Woodies party who attended - most of whom have been to Memphis at least once - felt the same way. Highly recommended.


At 11:10 pm , Blogger Tony Papard said...

I liked it. Didn't think the music was that bad. The warmth in the theater, my age, the fact I was up early this morning and that the music seemed to get a bit 'samey' towards end of second half meant I dozed off near the end so missed the crucial ending of the story and last number or two. Woke up during last number as audience were about to give a standing ovation. The storyline was excellent highlighting the racial taboos at the time, some still existing, and how rock'n'roll and people like Dewey Phillips, Sam Phillips, Alan Freed, Dick Clark, etc. helped to break them down.

At 10:43 am , Blogger Dave C said...

The enjoyment of this matinee showing was greatly enhanced by the vocal enthusiasm of the hordes of pre-pubescent and adolescent schoolchildren in the audience. Another word on the excellent Rachel John. Not having seen the star in that role, I can only think that Beverley Knight would have to go some to better the performance of her understudy.

At 8:13 pm , Blogger Nick said...

John Marriott commented: Saw it last November with Beverly Knight. We really enjoyed it partially because it didn't try to be smart and dropping real names and locations etc (leaving it open to criticism if they get it wrong. Tremendous energy from the dancers.


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