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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
MEMPHIS, THE MUSICAL
at the Shaftesbury

RADIO REVOLUTION
By JOHN NATHAN

  Ph: Johan Persson

With no fewer than four Tony Awards to its name, including Best Musical, this homage to the black music that launched the careers of countless white rock 'n rollers comes to London, as they say, well recommended. And so it should. Sergio Trujillo's high-octane and high-kicking choreography transmits the kind of energy that can make a couch potato twitch. The music by David Bryan sounds like the soul and R&B real thing – almost – and in the role of Memphis belle and nightclub singer Felicia, British soul diva Beverley Knight could have been born and bred on the city's famously bluesy Beale Street, where much of the action is set.

It is here, in the black section of the segregated city, that Felicia sings in her protective brother's basement club. This is 1950s Mississippi and Joe DiPietro's book takes its inspiration from the black talent – Aretha Franklin was one – that rose out of white oppression. If that description sounds a little heavy handed, well, segregation and civil rights is a heavy subject, even in a feel-good show such as this.

Which brings us the Achilles heel of Christopher Ashley's pumping, beat-brimming production, and a white fellow called Huey who, attracted by Felicia's voice, walks into the club apparently unconcerned by the stares he is getting from the venue's denizens. After failing to put everyone at ease with a song that suggests that, though his skin is white, his love of music is as black as any of those who might beat the hell out of him at any moment, Huey goes on to promise to play Felicia's record on the radio. And not just on any fringe show found in the farther reaches of the radio dial, but on one of the proper stations occupying the middle, white section of the dial.

There are just the three hurdles that need to be, well, hurdled: Duey doesn't have a radio show; Felicia hasn't made a record; and white folk don't listen to black music, or so everyone thinks. Duey sets out to prove that music transcends such barriers by becoming a famous DJ. And in so doing he and Felicia show that love can also conquer all. Except rednecks. One evening they attack the couple with baseball bats.

This is the darkest moment in an otherwise sanitized show. And apart from the terrific Knight, it is also a moment of rare authenticity. Bryan's music sounds about right. But the accumulative feeling as the show reaches its conclusion is that few if any of the many enjoyable melodies will stick in the mind.

This is forgivable in an evening that bowls along on the strength of its performers' charisma. Knight gets terrific support from Donnelly's loose canon motormouth DJ, who has the courage to play black records other white DJs wouldn't dare spin on their turntables. His career climaxes as the host of a TV show who looks awfully like the pioneering taboo-busting television that features in the musical Hairspray.

But less easy to forgive is that Huey – who is partly based on real-life maverick DJ Duey Philips, who was first to spin an Elvis record on air – slowly edges out Felicia as the show's central hero. So a show that seeks to highlight the injustice of black culture being hijacked by whites has decided that its central hero is white and not black. You would have thought that someone in this show's no doubt well-meaning creative team would have balked at that. Still, not to worry. This is as slick a production as you could wish for. And there is every chance that Memphis will do very well in the (mainly white) West End.

 


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