Thursday, December 29, 2011

Theatre review: "Memphis" through Sunday January 1st, 2012

A touring company version of the still running-strong Broadway hit Memphis has jumped into town for a few days landing at Heinz Hall in a dynamically sung, vigorously danced, snappy looking version. Joe DiPietro’s Tony Award winning book gives strong and significant substance to a story which actually most looks like a framework on which to hang a whole bunch of quasi-rock and roll songs.

That story, based on a true one, focuses on the emerging 1950s career of a Memphis, Tennessee white disc jockey and subsequent TV dance show host, here called Huey. He has an abiding love for and faith in black music of his day. He also falls in love with a black singer, Felicia, setting up antagonisms in both the white and black communities.

In Huey DiPietro has created an interesting, distinctive, unconventional character, more innocent than slick, sticking to who he wants to be and what he wants to do regardless of the consequences. In that way DiPietro’s book has a lot of intelligent integrity, neither whitewashing the negative nor coming up with feel- good resolutions. And, as Huey, Bryan Fenkart stands out with personality in fine voice.

Felicia Boswell in the role of Felicia also strongly lives up to the vocal demands as does Julie Johnson as Huey’s Mama. But neither performer conveys any special definition. In that regard they resemble the rest of the cast, remaining more generic than specific. Everyone sings with the kind of unceasing energy and volume that the big, down-front and center songs require. After a while, though, David Bryan’s music, patterned after the style and sound of the period, more and more resemble each other, even if his and DiPietro’s lyrics capably advance the story.

Sergio Trujillo’s choreography has impressive energy, full of elemental vigor and some of David Gallo’s scene settings look imaginative.

You might think that this could equal last month's zinger Million Dollar Quartet. That came loaded with great, memorable, catchy songs. So, although this is set in the same city, listening to Memphis you may feel that you’ve wandered down a much less compelling street.

Memphis plays through 6:30 p.m. Sunday, New Year’s Day at Heinz Hall, downtown.
412/ 392-4900.

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