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Theater Review (Washington, DC): Memphis at the Kennedy Center, Directed by Christopher Ashley

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Memphis is one of those shows where you can’t help but leave the theater with a huge smile on your face. There is a reason why it was one of the most popular shows on Broadway last year. The National Touring production has pitched its tent in Washington, DC for an extended visit at the Kennedy Center. The show features some truly amazing performances.Memphis National Tour At The Kennedy Center, Washington, DC

Felicia Boswell as Felicia and Bryan Fenkart as Huey in the National Tour of MEMPHIS – photo by Paul Kolnik

For lovers of music history, Memphis is loosely based on Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s. In this production, he’s the fresh-faced “white boy” with a soul, Huey (Bryan Fenkart), who spends his nights hanging out in the black part of town.

Huey feels the soul of the singers in Delray’s nightclub and especially the club’s star performer Felicia (Felicia Boswell). He may not have a job or know how he’s going to do it, but he has a dream of bringing this music to the masses.

David Gallo’s (The Drowsy Chaperone, Reasons to Be Pretty) scenic design is beautifully done and never distracts from the power of the performances. The show features music by Bon Jovi’s founding member and keyboardist David Bryan, and lyrics by Bryan and Joe DiPietro. They did an absolutely amazing job on an incredibly diverse soundtrack that includes traditional gospel, ’50s-style black rock and roll in the form of Felicia’s “Someday,” and rousing, uplifting big Broadway cast numbers like the signature “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Stand Up.”

Memphis National Tour At The Kennedy Center, Washington, DC
Felicia Boswell as Felicia and the National Touring Cast of MEMPHIS – photo by Paul Kolnik

There is not one sour note in the entire production. Everyone has a moment to shine. This production also had one of the biggest surprise musical moments I’ve seen in months. It came from Julie Johnson who played Huey’s long “suffering” mother. She throws it down on a southern gospel, country rock song, “Change Don’t Come Easy.” It’s part comedy, part serious, and she manages to bring it all together.

As she says, “I heard them people pray and chant. Colored folks sing like white people can’t.” Johnson may have proved that statement wrong. Up until that point everyone in the show was hitting these amazing three- and five-minute vocal runs and I joked to my dad that I’m waiting for someone to do a 20-minute note. Johnson didn’t quite go there, but she did a five- or 10-minute run where she hit almost every high, medium, and low note imaginable. Everyone in my section was thinking, “Wow, where did this come from?”

There were a lot of real musical surprises in this show, powerful voices coming from the strangest places. Fenkart does an outstanding job on the soulful, plaintive cry of “Memphis Lives In Me.” While the show has its dramatic moments it never wallows in depression and the pacing of the story is perfect.

Memphis is based on a concept by the late George W. George, with direction by Tony® nominee Christopher Ashley (Xanadu) and choreography by Sergio Trujillo, whose work is currently represented by shows on Broadway including Memphis and Jersey Boys.

Memphis is one not to be missed. It is currently on a national tour and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC until July 1, 2012. Performances will take place Tuesday through Sunday evenings in the Opera House at 7:30 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:30 p.m. There will be an additional matinee performance on Wednesday, June 27 at 1:30 p.m.

For information on when Memphis is coming to your area, visit the musical’s website.

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About Michelle Alexandria