When it comes to describing the blues, Guy Davis said it best when he sang “I’m laughing just to keep from crying.”
The most recent touring Broadway production at the Ordway, Memphis, exemplifies this phrase from start to finish in a Cadillac Records-meets-Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom style.
Memphis follows an unconventional, uneducated young white man (Huey) whose only creative or productive outlet is in the blues clubs on Beale Street in mid-1900's Tennessee. He stumbles into a black club when he hears the gorgeous sounds of Felicia, an extremely talented vocalist trying to sing her way to prosperity. Huey immediately makes it his job to bring the music and feel of Beale Street to white audiences listening to racially sanitized radio stations.
Despite everyone’s doubts, Huey’s instinct proves correct: audiences love the new music and dances, and he quickly rises from radio to a television career in Memphis. Along the way, he and Felicia fall in love and are constantly pressured from all sides to stay away from each other. Their relationship endures some devastating lows, including Felicia being beaten one night when they go out. They eventually do go their separate ways, with Felicia leaving for a profitable career in New York City, and Huey demoted back to radio where he started his career.
This production is Broadway flashy and pitch perfect, with costumes, setting and lighting working together seamlessly. Highlights include moving set platforms that ease scene staging time, and an enormous floating album with Temptations-esque performers shimmying at its center in the air over a record studio.
All of the cast members are wonderful in their roles. The female voices were particularly noteworthy, slicing through choruses with Cutco-like precision. As Felicia, Felicia Boswell inspires gospel chills with an alternately silken and piercing voice, further enhanced by her beautifully nuanced performance. Julie Johnson’s equally impressive vocals offer a white gospel tamber to Huey’s Mama.
Bryan Fenkart is also excellent, making Huey’s painful attempts to reconcile societal prejudice, his love of Felicia and the blues, and well-meant but misguided personal opinions equally inspiring and troubling. His fellow cast members Quentin Earl Darrington (Delray) and Rhett George (Gator) have gorgeous voices as well.
It’s also worth noting that the dance in Memphis is especially compelling. Acrobatic and emotive, at times it does a better job of expressing the feeling of 1950’s Memphis than the musical lyrics do. Standout songs include "The Music of My Soul," "Colored Woman," "Say a Prayer" and "Change Don't Come Easy."
It’s nice to see a production of this caliber telling the story of black artists’ struggle to balance profitable white demand for their music and simultaneous exclusion from and flagrant abuse within society. It’s a story that is only recently beginning to get its full due, and it more than deserves this cast and crew’s spot-on execution.
Memphis is a deliberate portrayal of the blues experienced in real life. Every tune isn’t just some nice sounding music; it’s a plaintive cry about the unfair ways that society digs its heels into its most downtrodden and an uplifting testament to resilience. It’s a wonderful night out for anyone.
+ Memphis continues at the Ordway through March 25. For more information visitorway.org.