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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
MEMPHIS
at Shaftesbury Theatre

RHYTHM AND BLUES
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Ph: Johan Persson

Not all that long ago there were so few West End dancers capable of interpreting the choreography of Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille, the brilliant but demanding work of those Broadway innovators had to be modified to accommodate the serious limitations of the handful of dancers at their disposal.

Watching the high-octane dance routines Sergio Trujillo has devised for the Tony-winning Memphis was a startling reminder of just how far British theater has progressed when it comes to staging musicals with the kind of expertise that was once the exclusive property of Broadway.

About 18 months ago I saw Memphis in New York, and as terrific as the dancing was, it’s even better over here – an observation I never thought I would make. That said, the musical itself, while consistently entertaining, is nowhere near as good as The Scottsboro Boys or Hairspray, which deal with race and the “downtown” rhythm and blues revolution, respectively.

Written by Joe Dipietro (book and lyrics) and with music by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, Memphis is a boy-meets-girl story set in the 1950s in which the boy, an illiterate poor white would-be DJ called Huey Calhoun, stumbles on an all-black R&B group in a rundown club on Beale Street.

Not only is he blown away by the music they’re making; he’s so smitten by Felicia, the group’s charismatic singer that, against the wishes of her reflexively suspicious brother Delray, he promises to make her into a star. How he goes about fulfilling that promise – beginning by steam-rolling his way into an ultra-conservative local radio station and convincing its owner that what kids today really want isn’t Perry Como but R&B – provides the show with a narrative that inevitably involves the shaming racism of the South, how that racism impinges on his love affair with Felicia and the sacrifices both have to make to further their careers. It’s a sacrifice she’s willing to undergo, but he isn’t.

Though Dipietro’s book trades too liberally in clichés at the expense of in-depth charaterisation and has a derivative feel to it, the narrative weaknesses are expertly camouflaged by the pace and energy injected into it by director Christopher Ashley, by Trujillo’s infectious and inventive choreography, and by David Gallo and Howard Binkley’s busy sets and lighting.

Without providing a single hit of its own, Bryan’s score convincingly evokes the black sounds of the era and gives the show’s two leading performers ample opportunity to sing their hearts out.

At the performance I attended the part of Huey Calhoun (a character inspired by revolutionary white DJs Dewey Phillips and Alan Freed) was played by Jon Robyns, who ticked all the boxes required of him. Without seeing the much-lauded Killian Donnelly in the role, comparisons obviously aren’t possible. All I can say is had I not been aware that I was watching an “alternate” I would never have known.

The undoubted star of the show, though, is Beverley Knight as Felicia. With her stunning good looks, luminous presence and a voice to die for, she more than compensates for the book’s shorthand approach to her character and the fissures in the story telling. Memphis may not be as trail blazing as the music that defines it, but it’s a jolly good night out all the same.

 


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