The touring production of Tony-winning musical Memphis currently playing at the Capitol Theatre could have simply delivered a musical revue of some of the best rock and roll America has ever produced. The home of Sun Records, STAX Records and other pioneering record labels certainly has plenty of classics to fill such a show.
Instead, the original songs in Memphis manage to capture the vibe of segregation-era Memphis, while the show as a whole has a lot more meat to it than I anticipated, tackling thorny issues of race and class while maintaining a generally upbeat vibe through most of the proceedings. For that, the show deserves a lot of credit--it's a nice compact history (albeit told through fiction) of how music helped bridge the differences in black and white communities in the South.
The show is a big, bold musical with a large cast and several show-stopping production numbers, but this touring version really succeeds thanks to the talents of its two primary stars. Joey Elrose leads the way as Huey, a young Memphis white man who falls in love with the sound of a black R&B club as he walks by, becoming a rock and roll evangelist in the process. Huey's enthusiasm for the music, and its power to transcend racial lines, is infectious. And in Memphis, that passion propels him from a struggling misfit into a popular DJ.
It also leads to problems for him and the other lead, black singer Felicia (Jasmin Richardson), as they establish a relationship that evolves from professional to deeply personal over the course of a number of years covered during the course of the show. While their shared love of music helps the duo navigate a touch-and-go start to their relationship, the outside forces in Memphis--white and black--aren't quite as ready to accept their colorblind relationship.
Both Elrose and Richardson display some serious vocal chops, and the songs they take the lead on in the show outshine the group numbers or those featuring other members of the cast. "The Music of My Soul" brings them together early on, and "Ain't Nothin' But a Kiss" showcased a palpable chemistry between the two characters.
With energetic dance numbers and a band full of urgent horns playing retro-tinged soul and rock music, Memphis worked for me, even as someone who doesn't love musicals. The story, the music, the big themes tackled in the script--it all comes together nicely. It's no surprise Memphis proved a popular favorite on Broadway.
Memphis runs through Sunday, June 1, at the Capitol Theatre. Visit the Broadway Across America-Utah website for more information and tickets.
Jasmin Richardson (Felicia) and Joey Elrose (Huey) in touring production of Memphis. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.