MEMPHIS: Music & Lyrics by David Bryan
Book & Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
210 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8DP
Mon – Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm to 28 March 2015
Runs 2 hr 30 mins One interval
TICKETS: 0207 379 5399
Review: William Russell 18 October
Soul stirring hit, everything a musical should be
Forget first night standing ovations – friends of the cast and celebrities in the stalls always stand up and so does everyone else. I saw this terrific musical about the birth of rock and roll in preview – critics were invited – at a matinee. The audience rose at the end and so did I.
Set in Memphis in the 1950s it is loosely based on a real life DeeJay, Dewey Phillips, who took to playing black soul music on his radio show. At the time there were radio shows for white music, and radio shows for black music in Alabama. He enjoyed huge success, white teenagers fell for the sound, and, even if rock and roll wasn’t quite born there and then, we all know what happened.
The story devised by DiPietro features Huey Calhoun (Killian Donnelly in charismatic performance) who persists in playing soul music, and falls for Felicia (Beverley Knight), a local singer of immense talent, who just happens to be black. He sees nothing wrong in how things are; she wants a proper career and knows to get it she has to go north. It is basically the old ‘star is born’ plot – she rises, he doesn’t – with a more or less happy ending, but none the worse for that.
The delights are Ms Knight, who can belt a number with the best, Mr Donnelly, a slick production by Christopher Ashley that never loses momentum and a superb original score.
This is not one more reprise of someone’s greatest hits. Mr Bryan’s songs are knock them dead in the aisles brilliant. It is not a profound evening, but it does not shrink from the racist horrors prevalent in Memphis and the rest of the South during segregation.
The supporting cast sing and dance splendidly and Huey’s prejudiced Mum, Gladys (Claire Machin) has a change of heart and gets a number of her own to deliver. Ms Machin rises to the chance. But the show belongs to Knight, whose voice is extraordinary. She can raise the roof with her high notes.
But neither she, nor Donnelly, are appearing at all performances and, while their stand-ins will undoubtedly be good, if that worries you – check first.
Felicia: Beverley Knight
Huey: Killian Donnelly
Delray: Rolan Bell
Gator: Tyrone Huntley
Bobby: Jason Pennycooke
Gladys: Claire Machin
Mr Simmons: Mark Roper
Alternate Felicia: Rachel John
Alternate Huey: Jon Robyns
Ensemble: Keisha Atwell, Arielle Campbell, Mark Carroll, Joseph Davenport,
Momar Diagne, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Hillary Elk, Laura Ellis, Kimmy Edwards, Charlotte Gorton, Benjamin Harrold, Waylon Jacobs, Dean Maynard, Devon McKenzie-Smith
Director: Christopher Ashley
Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo/ Edgar Godineaux
Designer: David Gallo/ Rory Powers
Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Designer: Howell Binkley/John Harris
Sound Designer: Gareth Owen
Musical Director: Tim Sutton
Set Designer: Andrew Edwardes
Fight Director: Steve Rankin/Tristan Adams
Dialect Coach: Michaela Kennen