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Theater Review: RBTL's "Memphis"


Given that the 2012-13 Rochester Broadway Theatre League season is stocked with big-name shows like "Book of Mormon," "Les Miserables," and "Mary Poppins," you might have overlooked "Memphis," which is currently on stage at the Auditorium Theatre. Judging by the audience reaction to Tuesday night's area debut, this show has the potential to be a sleeper hit. The show -- which won the 2010 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score -- has some flaws, but overall it's a winning combination of a feisty cast, an interesting story, and some catchy singing and flashy dancing.

"Memphis" is set in the 1950's in the Tennessee city of the title. Racial tensions are high, and in this show are viewed primarily through the prism of music. The white folk nod along sleepily to their Perry Como while the black people gather in blues joints and churches to listen to something with a lot more soul. Straddling both worlds is Huey Calhoun, a white goofball who long ago rejected his father's racism and fell in love with black soul music. One night Huey dares to come into Delray's blues club, meets the owner's singing sister, Felicia, and makes it his mission to not only get himself on the radio as a DJ, but to get Felicia's music heard across the broadcast dial.

It's probably not a spoiler to say that Huey succeeds, but one of the refreshing things about "Memphis" is that while elements of the story are predictable, even clich├ęd (one supporting character pulls a full-on Tiny Tim), in other ways the show takes some interesting roads less travelled. The fact that a character like Huey is the protagonist is surprising on its own. He's awkward, sometimes even obnoxious (he is repeatedly referred to as a "fool," and that is the best description of his character), and not at all a traditional romantic lead. The second act includes some surprisingly unlikable behavior from both Huey and Felicia. And perhaps most interesting, the show directly addresses how whites appropriated what was considered stereotypically black music and turned it into rock 'n' roll, an argument that's typically glossed over in mainstream pop-cultural discussions.

The flaws with "Memphis" are mostly in its inconsistencies. The script varies between some really sharp lines and overly obvious dialogue. The music wobbles between instantly catchy and forgettable (although all of the music, Tony winning or not, could have probably used another coat of polish -- there's a lot of good stuff here, but it felt like the writers stopped just short of something really special). And on Tuesday night, the cast started out weak but eventually built to a great overall ensemble.

Take, for instance, the opening number, "Underground." It introduces the audience to the excitement and freedom of 1950's r'n'b/soul music, and when it fully hits I bet it's a scorching introduction to the show. But at the performance I attended, the dancers were nowhere near in synch, the sound levels were all over the place, and lead singers -- especially Kelcy Griffin, who filled in the role of Felicia for the night -- were impossible to understand.

Griffin steadily improved throughout the evening, and by Act 2 was delivering consistently excellent work. She's got a huge voice, was charming in her acting scenes, and has a real stage presence. At first I was turned off by Bryan Fenkart's totally over-the-top performance as Huey, but that's the character -- he really is a caricature, and Fenkart reins it in skillfully for some of the more emotional moments. His singing is excellent throughout. The supporting cast is also well stocked with talented performers, especially Julie Johnson as Mama and Horace V. Rogers as Delray (though he disappears for entire chunks of the show).

The pacing is lightning quick, without a single wasted second. Although the set itself is fairly sparse there are some cool visual tricks peppered throughout. The costumes, while perhaps more embellished than actual 50's garb, are fun and fabulous. And when the music and dancing really clicks it makes for some exciting theatrical moments, especially for fans of classic r'n'b and gospel music.

"Memphis" continues through Sunday, December 2, at the Auditorium Theatre, 885 E. Main St. Show times are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 & 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 & 6:30 p.m. Tickets cost $27.50-$67.50. For more information visit