Those who enjoy whoopingly feel-good musicals with exuberant vocal gymnastics and great dancing will be truly sorry if they don’t catch MEMPHIS, the story of the rise of “nigger music” in 1950’s segregated America, before it finishes in the West End in October.
Originating in California and Massachusetts in 2003 the show ran on Broadway for nearly three years between 2009 and 2012, picking up a Tony award for Best Musical and a Drama Desk award for Outstanding Musical in 2010, along with a crop of awards and nominations for the orchestration, the original score, the performances and the choreography. It is loosely based on the life and times of pioneering white Memphis radio DJ Dewey “Daddy-O” Phillips, a big fan of rock n’ roll, jazz, boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues and country music. Phillips was one of the first to play the “race music” of the black community to America’s young white community. He was also the first to play the Sun Record’s 1954 debut of a white boy singing like a black one on upbeat versions of “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, lorry-driver Elvis Presley.
In a radio interview with Presley, Phillips cleared up any confusion his listeners might have had about whether the Presley they could hear but not see was white or black by asking the 19 year-old which high school he’d attended, settling the question in racist, segregated America at that time. Phillips, a heavy drinker and amphetamine user with a manic delivery on the air faded into obscurity as the “devil’s music” became mainstream for the young around the world and died early of heart failure 14 years later, in 1968.
For MEMPHIS Dewey Phillips is Huey Calhoun, inspiringly played by the talented Killean Donnelly in the performance we saw, an amiable and eccentric white drunk who stumbles into the Underground black music club on Beale Street on the black side of town one night, drawn in by the performance of a beautiful black girl singer. Felicia Farrell is played by Beverley Knight, a petite and demure lady with a voice and raunchy soul style that are anything but, though she does sweet ballads and uplifting gospel just as well. Initially rejected but then accepted for his genuine love of their music by the denizens of the club, Huey starts a dangerous relationship with their singer, the sister of the club’s owner, Delroy, who keeps a watchful eye on the romance. Huey eventually becomes a DJ, and later a TV presenter, and makes good his promise to put Felicia on mainstream white radio. This starts her on the road to TV stardom, a success that sadly Huey is not destined to share, thanks to the cynical money-men who move in on anything that might turn a buck or three.
For our money – we queued up early on a Saturday morning in June for £20 same-day matinee tickets in the right-on-top-of-the-action front row of the stalls – MEMPHIS was an exhilarating experience. Right from the rousing opening number it kicks in hard and stays there, though our enjoyment was not just from the hugely impressive singing and acting talents displayed by the leads in the numbers they performed, or the strong support from all the other cast members playing characters, but from the seriously superb dancers, white and black, men and women. And though it is grossly unfair to the excellent and athletic chaps this male OAP (Old And Perverse?) gazing up from the front row as skirts swirled fetchingly up around swivelling hips to visceral rock music, enjoyed the ladies most, with all the wiggles, bumps, grinds, and sexy shimmying, shaking, sashaying and strutting alone being well worth the entrance fee.
MEMPHIS is performed at the Shaftesbury Theatre until October 31. As well as the CD soundtrack to the UK show an excellent two-hour plus DVD of the Broadway show, filmed in early 2011 and taking the best of five performances, is available from the theatre shop.