No affirmation was needed this week, that the electrifying new musical in town is Memphis. The audience went wild.
From the high octane opening song, until the big finale, Memphis The Musical, the big budget Broadway show now running at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre, is firing on all cylinders.
The dancing is smoking, the score (from Bon Jovi’s David Bryan) is sensational and its stars are stunning.
Beverley Knight’s voice has never been better while Killian Donnelly’s rebel DJ Huey Calhoun is the Leader Of The Pack.
Joe Dipietro’s story doesn’t sugar-coat the very serious subject of racial discrimination but it goes down the route previously trod by Hairspray in making it part of an upbeat musical.
In the 1950s, when the show is set, Memphis, in line with other Deep South states, forbid interracial marriage. Clubs, schools, buses, even water fountains, were segregated.
No black person would have ever ventured into a “whites-only” nightclub or bar and vice-versa.
It wasn’t until 1968 that a white man first kissed a black woman in TV – and that came in, of all things, Star Trek. In the same year Petula Clark caused outrage in the South when she touched the arm of black singer Harry Belafonte on a TV show.
Memphis opens on Beale Street, the heart of blues, soul and rock. The music is pumping from a club owned by Delray…and in walks Huey.
What you have is a good old-fashioned love story played out against the collapse of discrimination and the birth of popular music.
Huey is off-the-wall, larger-than-life and determined that blues and soul music will break down cultural barriers.
The show is carried on Donnelly’s exuberant performance. It’s no wonder Felicia falls for Huey. It’s impossible not to love his roguish charm.
Felicia Farrell is a singer in her brother, Delray’s, club and, like Huey, she’s looking for a better life.
There’s no subtlety to Knight’s performance. She knocks ’em dead with every song.
She earned her acting credentials in The Bodyguard. Here the accent is right and she gives a fine performance that asks her to endure some harrowing scenes of racial intolerance.
There were quite a few gasps from a shocked audience when the “n” word was used and she was verbally abused by Huey’s God-fearing mother Gladys (a powerful performance from Claire Machin).
The large ensemble gets to indulge in some inspired and big set pieces from choreographer Sergio Trujillo that showcase their talent (great to see Alex Thomas again after such a promising start in the UK tour of Fame).
There’s also strong support from Rolan Bell as Delray, Jason Pennycooke (Bobby) and Mark Roper as radio station boss Mr Simmons.
The enthusiastic standing ovation at the performance I watched seemed to genuinely take the cast by surprise and there were more than a few tears.