When it comes to the musical Memphis, I have had the pleasure now of seeing both the touring edition and the Broadway edition.
When I compare the two shows, I love both versions, but somehow, I find myself loving the touring edition, playing at Kentucky Center for the Arts until Sunday, just a little more. Everything just seemed more on point, more believable than the original. That's not a knock on the Broadway version (it did win the well-deserved Tony Award for Best Musical after all), but rather a major compliment to the cast and crew of the current touring show.
Bryan Fenkart is superb (and more believable than Huey original Chad Kimball) as Huey, a white Memphis kid in the 1950s with a love of the rhythm-and-blues played in the black clubs of the day, including Delray's, where he finds and falls in love with a black singer, Felicia, played with powerful, emotional gusto by Felicia Boswell.
Huey becomes a DJ and then a local sensation, bringing Felicia to the same attention. All the while, the audience is entertained with sharp, energetic music that embraces the passion of early rock-n-roll and rhythm-and-blues. Vocally, save for some harmonizing problems during Someday, the singers, especially Boswell, sang with enthusiasm and emotion. One could really feel what the characters were going through.
A couple of very cool moments came with other principal characters. Peter Matthew Smith, as Buck Wiley, a DJ that Huey tries to replace, was hilarious when promoting an upcoming song as one in which he and his wife "cuddle", drink "so-deeee pop", and, if the mood is right, "kiss". Smith was the cheesiest DJ in the history of DJs, and somehow, that was more than enough to draw me in.
More kudos goes to Julie Johnson, as Huey's mother, and her final lines in Change Don't Come Easy. Her runs up and down the scale with a raspy tone and an energy level somewhere in between Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin brought members of the audience to a standing ovation at the end of the song.
During most of the up-tempo numbers, the audience members I could see were tapping their toes or bopping their heads to the music. Many more were smiling along as well.
Overall, with a few minor hiccups, Memphis is a great musical for those that couldn't get to Broadway to see the original run. They might be treated to an even better show.
Keep in mind, there is cursing, a fight scene, and a gunshot that take place during the production. The show is recommended for those eight years old and up. Tickets for Memphis are still available for this weekend's shows, starting at $25. More information on tickets can be found at the Kentucky Center website.
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(Image from Kentucky Center)