01st Nov2014

Memphis the Musical – Theatre

by timbaros

Memphis, 2014, Credit: Johan Persson/Memphis was the birthplace of, and a magnet for, so many world famous musicians and singers, including Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett. It is also the place where Elvis Presley lived, and died. Memphis is so synonymous with music that it’s only fitting that a musical would come along with the same name – Memphis.

Just opened at the Shaftsbury Theatre in London’s West End, Memphis the Musical is a look at a time when Memphis the city was not what it is today – sixty years ago it was very very different. Blacks were still seen as second class citizens, nightclubs and cinemas were racially segregated, and inter-racial marriage was illegal. Radio stations also discriminated – each played music for a specific audience, and racial integration was purely not allowed. This is explored in Memphis the Musical when white musician Huey (Killian Donnelly) falls in love with black female singer Felicia (Beverly Knight).

Huey works as a stock boy in a department store. He visits Delray’s – a black rock and roll bar where he is the only white person – and falls in love with the music, as well as taking a shine to Felicia, who sings at the club her brother Delray (Rolan Bell) owns. Back at the store Huey asks his boss if he can play music over the store’s loudspeakers. His boss agrees, and soon enough customers like what they hear and buy the records in droves. But the boss doesn’t like the fact that Huey played black music, so he gets fired.

Having realized that he really loves this music, Huey applies for a job as a DJ at various radio stations in town but at one station he sneaks into the DJ booth and plays the music that he thinks people want to hear – the black music. The music, and him, are a hit, and his romance with Felicia heats up, much to the dismay of Delray, and Huey’s racist mother Gladys (Claire Machin).
Huey wants to play Felicia’s first song at his radio station, but before he is able to he gets into a row with his mom, and the record breaks, and Felicia runs out and they realize that keeping their relationship together is going to be difficult. Things get more complicated for them when they are seen kissing by a group of white men, who proceed to beat them up, rendering Felicia’s face very bloody. It’s expected that everything works out between them and they live happily ever after. But it’s the journey of getting to the expected that makes Memphis the Musical worth watching.

From the art deco department store to Huey’s living room, to the interiors of Delray’s to the lone radio DJ booth on stage – it’s a set that works very well on the small stage. The backup dancers do their damndest to entertain us – and they do. There’s lots of them on stage at the same time, and it’s amazing that they don’t hit each other while swinging their arms and legs. And it wouldn’t be a very good musical without the excellent music, done by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, who collaborated with Joe DiPietro. Both Bryan and DiPietro won Tony Awards for this show’s music when it premiered first on Broadway in 2010. However, it’s Knight who gets top billing, and she doesn’t disappoint. Knight, who last year starred in the West End’s Bodyguard, shows us here that she has perhaps found another calling – from being a top pop singer to being West End’s newest diva. This girl can sing! The stage is hers and hers alone. She is able to belt out blues, rock and gospel and still amaze. Donnelly, who was the only good thing in the very dull The Commitments, looks very comfortable in his role as Huey. But he appears to be just going through the motions. Sure he can sing the socks off of us, but he looks like he’s not making much of an effort. He’s a natural on stage but he needs to be more than that, he needs to take it a few notches higher. But at the end of the day it’s Knight’s show, so go see and hear the West End’s newest Diva – Beverly Knight – she’s fabulous.