An oversized, antique radio dial in front of the stage curtains greets fans who enter a performing arts venue to watch the musical “Memphis,” just like a full house did on Tuesday night (Feb. 5) at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville.
Much of the night would be spent defining the benefits of being in the center frequencies of the dial — and what happens to those stuck on the fringes.
Decorated as a musical about the early days of rock ’n’ roll, “Memphis” is flashy and generally flawless, a seamless production of pretty sets, pretty people and pretty voices.
Those elements make for a fun musical, certainly. “Memphis” is fun, and it contains several laugh-worthy moments. And while some musicals never seek loftier aspirations, “Memphis” should not be considered among them.
What “Memphis” does better than most of them is tell a story without pulling punches. Or, in the case of one of the show’s more chilling moments, pulling a savage beating with a baseball bat.
Underneath the glossy veneer of this musical is a tale weaving issues of race, religion, love and progress. Those volatile elements are present at various points throughout the show, to the point of making audience members uncomfortable. I heard at least two occasions where the bulk of the audience collectively gasped at a particularly provocative statement or action.
The central question posed by “Memphis” manifests itself in the budding relationship of the two leads, Huey Calhoun, an equally enthusiastic and foolhardy music lover, and Felicia Farrell, a promising singer who can’t get national attention because of the color of her skin.
But Huey somehow finagles his way onto radio as a disc jockey, promising to take the music of Felicia and other black performers with him. That plan, despite the best efforts of some of those in power, is an overnight success thanks to the young listeners of Huey’s program. Huey, Felicia and others are living their dream, and at the center of the radio dial, too, meaning they have the maximum amount of listeners. Huey’s radio program becomes the No. 1 program in Memphis.
As rapid ascensions often go, Huey’s comes crashing down, not unlike that of real-life 1950s Memphis disc jockey Dewey Philips, the man whose career “Memphis” is said to be loosely based upon.
Good musicals start with good leads, and this touring musical is blessed to have Bryan Fenkart as Huey. As foolish as Huey can be sometimes, his earnestness and enthusiasm provide him with an unflagging charm. So, once you get used to the idea that Fenkart is going to be as manic at the end of the show as he was at the beginning, you can’t help but root for him.
The role of Felicia Farrell is played by Felicia Boswell, and her uncanny resemblance to the woman in the script doesn’t end with the name. A passing reference in the script to a black woman who refused to give up her bus seat in Alabama — that would be Rosa Parks — is actually a distant relative of Boswell.
Those farther down the cast list deserve credit too, as evidenced courtesy of scene-stealing moments by Gator (played by Rhett George) and Mama (played by Julie Johnson), particularly during “Change Don’t Come Easy,” which earned as much cheer from the audience as any other song delivered during the show.
Change doesn’t come easy, and the end of the show finds Huey spinning records at a station on the edge of the radio dial again. But by then, something much larger was already happening.
The national discussion was moving toward a more centrist position.
And “Memphis,” a tale about a city not far from center of the race discussion, is a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we need to go.
The show continues at the Walton Arts Center through Feb. 10. Read our story about the show and Felicia Boswell from last week [subscriber content].