By Matthew J. Palm, Orlando Sentinel Theater Critic
11:57 PM EDT, May 14, 2013
Touring Broadway musical "Memphis" is larger than life, much like the Tennessee city that gives the show its name. Full of exuberant dancing and rhythm-and-blues wailing, "Memphis" starts rocking from the first glimpse of an underground nightclub and doesn't let up until the final strains of "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll," the high-energy closing number.
Yet among the feel-good numbers, Joe DiPietro's book drops in chilling moments of America's inglorious past on racial matters. A white businessman casually calls a black man "Boy." A black man reveals a scar — the legacy of drinking from a "Whites only" water fountain as a child.
It's the moments like these that give "Memphis," the 2010 best-musical Tony winner, its heft. And this fine production's cast, more solid than in many tours, makes each moment count.
Set in the 1950s, "Memphis" is all about race. It's the birth of rock music — derogatorily called "race music" by white folk. But Huey Calhoun, a white man with a ninth-grade education, sees past color. He just knows the music is part of his soul.
Playing the new music, he rises to the top — but complicating matters is his romance with sassy singer Felicia, a black woman. And interracial love just won't fly with the American public. In one eye-opening moment for the current generation, debating a different sort of marriage equality, Felicia points out that Tennessee laws won't allow them to wed.
Yes, it's a little heavy. But there are enough comic moments to lighten the overall vibe. A big help: that toe-tapping, soul-stirring music, composed by David Bryan.
Miraculously, the performers don't sound preachy. Both leads, Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell, played their parts on Broadway, and their chops show loud and clear.
Fenkart gets a little carried away with Huey's accent at times, but it helps emphasize the man's eccentricities. Boswell knows when to relax, but she's all business with emotional ballads "Colored Woman" and "Love Will Stand When All Else Falls."
The supporting cast is equally strong. As Huey's racist mama, Julie Johnson adroitly makes her hateful character likeable. And she brings down the house with a shrewdly comic and heartfelt "Change Don't Come Easy."
Horace V. Rogers as Felicia's protective brother, Will Mann as Huey's pal Bobby, and Rhett George as club bartender Gator also have powerful moments.
The show's second half isn't structurally as strong as the first. The concluding segments feel rushed — and don't play nearly as realistically as the preceding scenes. And several times, lyrics were lost in the volume of the onstage rock band.
But in an age where we still need to talk about race, gender and love, a trip to this "Memphis" is well worth taking.
• What: Touring production of the Broadway musical
• When: 8 p.m. today-Friday, May 15-17; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 18; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, May 19
• Where: Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, 401 W. Livingston St., Orlando
• Tickets: $41 and up
• Call: 407-246-4262
• Online: orlandobroadway.com
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