Memphis the Musical: A review

Thanks to Nicole Barrett and radio station KLIF, I won two tickets to opening night of the Dallas Summer Musical performance of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical, Memphis.  It’s always great to get out to a show, and the free-er, the better!   I’m sure that’s what the people in front of me thought when they got the free peepshow of my panties.  I got my dress caught on a theater seat and somehow managed to yank both it and my slip up over my hips.  Sorry, people!  At least you weren’t charged for the view.

I enjoy musical theater.  I have no problem with people bursting into song at odd moments, full orchestras invisibly swelling behind people who are suddenly dancing and singing.  I mean, except for the musicians, I do that all the time.  Why shouldn’t everyone else?  And, since my latest guilty pleasure is SMASH!, I was very excited to go see Memphis.

Sadly, I was disappointed.

First, though, the highlights.  Felicia Boswell, who played Felicia Farrell, was fantastic.  Her vocals were wonderful, and I would sit and listen to her sing all night.  She also cut a smashing figure in her costumes, and moved beautifully.  She’s got some amazing arms.

The choreography was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed watching the dancing.  Made me wish I could move like that.

The costuming was great.

About half of the numbers were truly enjoyable.  The other half?

So, when you leave a good musical, you should be humming a song, or at least have an earworm.  Even after the first episode of Smash!, I was humming “Let Me Be Your Star” without realizing it.  A good musical should have at least one number that you want to stop, rewind, and play again.  Memphis didn’t have any of these for me.  I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the music–in fact, there were a couple of songs Boswell sang that made me wish I could replay the stylings she gave them, but that was everything to do with her, and nothing to do with Memphis.  I walked out and couldn’t have sung you a bar from any of the songs they performed, and given my Mockingbird like recall for music, that’s saying something really sad.

Several of the actors seemed to be having trouble with their mics.  At least, I’m going to give them that benefit of the doubt, otherwise I can’t see why they would have been cast.  Dialogue was garbled and unintelligible in places, with Boswell and a trio of supporting actors being the only characters I could completely understand.  The star of the show, Bryan Fenkart, who plays Huey Calhoun (the fictionalized version of Dewey Phillips, upon whom the story is built) was just not good at all.

Most of the time, Fenkart couldn’t be understood at all.  He, and the rest of the cast, adopt what passes for a Tennessee accent (if you have never been to Tennessee) and on top of his hick twang, he has added a version of Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy hiccoughing affectation.  I could catch two or three words of every sentence.  Having no knowledge of the musical beforehand, when his character first appeared, I thought he was playing the stereotypical Southern Mentally Challenged trope.  That’s how affected his speech was.  It took a couple of scenes before I realized he was the star, and quit waiting for him to meet some end like Mercutio.  His vocals were marginal and his dancing made me think he’d been cast for his vocals.

The story was all right.  I feel like the subject matter could have been handled much better, but that would have required taking the focus from Huey and putting it on Felicia–rewriting the show entirely.  I was very uncomfortable with some of the language.  Racial epitaphs are a part of my family’s conversational history that I have worked hard to distance from, and it was actually painful to sit through listening to dialogue that sounded like it had been tape-recorded off my Granny’s back porch.  Yes, it was historically accurate, but also yes, the seriousness, danger and sadness of the era were completely glossed over in lieu of using a few slurs to set a tone.  It made too light of the violence and hate that were rampant in those days, relegating the truth of the matter to two offhand comments and one short scene in the matter of 2.5 hours.  If you’re going to do a show about racism in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, you’ve got to commit.  People died.

I wasn’t engrossed, and there was a massive shift in Huey’s character after intermission surprised me.  Though, I think I was supposed to infer that he had become a drunk because he drank from a flask twice in the 6-8 year span of time the last half of the play covered.  His speech and movement never changed, so who knows?  I just know he started behaving differently toward Felicia.

I liked the parts revolving around Felicia, and wished there was more to her story, her brother’s story, and the people around her, and less about the herp-derp DJ.  I appreciated that Felicia was a strong-willed, independent woman, and was glad for how she ended up.  I guess I liked everything about her.

So…I’d give it 2 out of 5 stars.  It wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t great.  It was somewhere short of average for me.  I loved having the night out, though, and do really appreciate the free tickets!

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