Paul Kolnik

Paul Kolnik Felicia Boswell performs in the natonal tour of "Memphis."

Theater review: Lively performances nudge 'Memphis' toward greatness

Published: Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D

There's something undeniably watchable and winning about "Memphis," the eager-to-please musical now at the Community Center Theater. It's not the slick, superficial story of music and race in 1950s Memphis being told, but the lively and heartfelt performances that pop the production out of its synthesized schematics.

Bryan Fenkart as Huey, a goofy white DJ who has discovered rhythm and blues, and Felicia Boswell as Felicia, a young African American star yearning to shine, are impossible to dislike. Individually they light up the stage and, though their central romance doesn't particularly catch fire, the pair do what they can with what they've got.

The story of "Memphis" centers on Huey and his love of African American music ("The Music of My Soul"). When he happens on an R&B juke joint with a gorgeous singer leading the band, he couldn't care less that he's the only white person in the club.

Throughout the show, in fact, Huey is very much of the "Why can't we all just get along?" sensibility. Well the reason is they're in the South in the early '50s, and there are laws (and folks on both sides with strong feelings) against those sort of things. Huey's a romantic in more ways than one.

Boswell's Felicia has a more pragmatic view of things, but then she has to because she's black ("Colored Woman"). Still, as Huey creates a sensation around himself as white DJ spinning black music, he tries to bring Felicia along with him.

The ideas of racial separation and inequality are very much in the forefront of "Memphis," and they're dealt with directly if not with subtlety. The ideas are also dispatched pretty quickly so the next high-energy good-time superficially blues-ish or gospel-ish song and dance number can smooth the way. Sergio Trujillo choreographed the production, and the athletic ensemble happily charges into his dances. Christopher Ashley efficiently directs the show, which races through several years of the characters' lives after a careful setup.

There are strong supporting performances from Horace V. Rogers as Felicia's brother Delray, Rhett George as the philosophical Gator, and Will Mann as the secretly gifted Bobby. Julie Johnson as Huey's mother brings down the house with her own gospel conversion.

David Bryan (a founding member and keyboardist of Bon Jovi) wrote the music and joined Joe DiPietro for the lyrics. The book by DiPietro won the 2010 Tony Award as did the entire production for best musical, Bryan's score, and the orchestrations by Bryan and Daryl Waters.

The musical seems at times like a pastiche of "Hairspray" (the redemptive power of interracial dancing) and "Dreamgirls" (black women entertainers succeed when they channel their inner Diana Ross) but it entertains thoroughly all the way into its final bows.


★ ★ ★

What: Broadway Sacramento presents the national touring production of the Tony-winning musical about the problems of race and the birth of rock 'n' roll in 1950s Memphis.

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; 2 p.m. today, Saturday and Sunday

Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento

Tickets: $19-$73

Information: (916) 557-1999 or

Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including one intermission.

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