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MEMPHIS The Musical: Felicia Boswell is Pure Magic!

If you haven't already heard, MEMPHIS, the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical is in Toronto (until December 24th). Set in 1950's, Memphis, is the story of forbidden love (white boy/black girl) and forbidden musical integration (white teens listening to "race music"). DJ wanna be, Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart) is in love with the music he hears on Beale Street, the music of the city's black inhabitants, who have taken church music and turned it on its head and transformed it into R & B, soon to be transitioned again into Rock music. Venturing into one of these clubs, Huey meets and falls in love with Felicia (Felicia Boswell), a singer in her brother Delray's (Quentin Earl Darrington) nightclub.

The love story is forwarded by dance-in-your-seat music by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro (who also penned the book, based on a concept by George W. George). Energetically choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, the dances are a blend of period moves, and pure Broadway styling that contrast the ways in which black and white teens were dancing, and the way everyone began to dance to the same music, American music. Set pieces such as the FM broadband dial, the disc jockey booth, and the television studio will be nostalgic for older audience members; younger audiences will view the set design as "vintage" while relating to the age-old theme of rebelling against their parents' music.

The themes in Memphis are huge societal issues, but this is more a play about music than anything else. If you're looking for a message piece or a weighty musical tome about the dangerous prospect of miscegenation in the south and the difficulties blacks faced in getting their music played without paying payola, or whites co-opting black music, then look elsewhere. Memphis is a commercial theatrical venture, meant to satisfy a wide range of tastes and ages. This is a full out musical about generational changes, the rise of rock and roll, and individuals daring to decide their own fates. I had a very enjoyable time watching this play on opening night, but I couldn't help wishing after I had left the theatre, that Memphis had risen to the heights of a Fiddler on the Roof, a play which so adroitly blends its themes of discrimination with extremely memorable tunes (Tradition, Matchmaker etc). What I do remember is the dynamic performance of Felicia Boswell. She is pure magic, bringing a spark to the stage every time she steps onto it. Once her character of Felicia is introduced, you will find yourself watching for her next appearance. Her tiny figure disguises a powerhouse voice that can fill any thearte, but what I enjoyed most about her singing are the quiet moments she has every now and then to sing with minimal music and without vocal riffs acrobatics. Boswell needs to watch her diction a wee bit, but you can't teach stage presence, and she's got that flowing from the tips of her fingers. Bryan Fenkart is adorable as the lovestruck Huey, but he is even better when paired with Boswell. She is one actress that producers should snap up once her run with Memphis ends.

Memphis does not shy away from the race issue: the polite terminology of "race music" is used throughout the play, but in one scene a character does use the term "nigger music", not to shock, but to remind the audience that such terms were broadly and commonly used to describe the music that black people were playing on stations way at the very end of the radio dial. Huey and Felicia have to keep their taboo romance a secret from his mother, her brother, and society at large. Even good Christians didn't listen to the music Huey wants to unearth from the clubs for all of Memphis to hear. Teenagers might be demanding a change on what's on the dial, as the song "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night" evidences, and advertisers will follow where the teen dollar goes, but race mixing will not be condoned! Felicia's "Colored Woman" tells the story of a woman who wants to make different choices than her mother, but as another tune demonstrates "Change Don't Come Easy". At a pivotal moment in the first act, Gator, a character who has not spoken since witnessing a lynching, breaks out of his trauma to earnestly ask everyone to "Say a Prayer".

Until December 24th
Toronto Centre for the Arts
5040 Yonge Street (North York Centre subway stop)

Photos: by Paul Kolnik; Memphis poster by Key Art.
Courtesy of DanCap Productions.


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