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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Felicia Boswell (Felicia) and Bryan Fenkart (Huey) in the National Tour of "Memphis." (PHOTO: Paul Kolnik)

"Memphis" gets under your skin

It doesn't take long for the cast of "Memphis" to let you know what this show is all about.

Almost the very first lyrics sung by the smooth-talking Delray set the whole evening up clearly.

"It's time to lose the day, it's time to head to Beale,
Where the rhythm is hot, and the music is real.
You can do without love, swear off the booze,
But everyone alive needs to sing the blues.
So time to raise some hell and get on down."

From that point on the Tony Award-winning musical "Memphis," which opened a week-long run last night at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, gets under your skin and into your blood in the way few plays, much less musicals, ever do.

This is, in a clear-cut sense, a crime story. The coin of the realm that is stolen is the music of Beale Street in Memphis, the black music that moved from the church to the underground clubs where whites didn't dare trod.

It's the story of a few white men who fell in love with the music, created widespread exposure for it, and made it their own cultural icon. In some sense it's a sad story because of the theft. But in a larger sense, we are grateful, for we otherwise may never have heard these songs.

"Memphis" is not an homage to specific songs. Instead, the all-original score tells a story and captures the sound and emotion that make this music so soulful and stirring.

The story of this play is simple, and almost incidental to the music and singing and dancing. It's about a white boy named Huey who falls in love with this music. In his first appearance he spells things out.

"When I was a young boy my daddy sat me down,
He said "Son, don't you never go to the dark side of town. I'm talkin' downtown Memphis, see that's where the black folk play.
An' I said "Yes sir, Daddy," and then I snuck down anyway!
See, never was taught to read none, no, never taught to write.
The only thing my Daddy taught was white should stay with white.
But I heard it through the alleys, it floated on the breeze,
It burst out through the doorways and it knocked me to my knees!
It broke down all my senses, yet made me feel so whole,
See, I was lost until I found the music of my soul."

He falls for the music and he falls for Felicia, the singer in the club. There are no secrets to this story. We all know that love between a white man and a black woman in 1950 Tennessee isn't going to last. He becomes a Memphis star and he brings her along with him.Then she moves on to the big time and he is left alone, with his music and his memories.

The story is formulaic and without much suspense. The writing is absent of the grit and pain and sorrow that should infest the music. The whole thing is really too simple. Every time something bad happens to someone, you can be assured that a redemptive song is right around the corner.

This is the first national tour of "Memphis" and it shows with a bright and soulful appeal from a cast of dancers, singers and actors who set a very high bar for Milwaukee.

Bryan Fenkart, who played Huey on the day I saw the show, and Felicia Boswell, who plays Felicia, are the two stars of this show.

Fenkart is a quixotic figure with a Gumby-like body and a voice with enough ache and range to make us smile, frown or tear up when he sings.

Boswell is one hot chick. She has all of the sultry moves down cold and she has a voice that soars to fill every niche of the theater.

The entire cast and the wonderful band manage to overcome the weaknesses in this writing, both lyrics and dialogue, and create a bouncing kind of sanitized version of what life must have been like on Beale Street.

It is well worth a visit to Beale Street, in the deepest heart of Memphis.

Memphis runs through Sunday and tickets are available at the Marcus Center box office or by phone at (414) 273-7206 or at


olderwiser | Jan. 10, 2013 at 2:16 p.m. (report)

Memphis is very entertaining. Perhaps you dozed off and missed the story, Dave. And BTW, it is a 'love story with a background of history'. Not a 'crime story' as you sarcastically described it. Why confuse potential patrons who might actually want to be entertained by awesome singing, dancing, and costumes?

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