I was originally opposed to musicals. People spontaneously combusting into song and dance without provocation just seemed a little unnatural and unnerving to me. But I was converted after I went to see Memphis. Critically acclaimed Memphis won four 2010 Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards, and four Outer Critic Circle Awards for honors ranging from Best Musical and Best Musical Score to Outstanding Actress and Outstanding Choreography. Memphis takes place in the smoky halls and underground clubs of the segregated 1950’s, where a young white DJ named Huey Calhoun falls in love with everything he shouldn’t: rock and roll and an electrifying Black singer. Memphis is an original story about the Cultural Revolution that erupted when Huey met his vision and met her voice; changing music forever.
Memphis is playing in Chicago for just two weeks, from November 22 through December 4 at the Cadillac Palace Theater at 151 W. Randolph Street. While seeing Memphis was a treat and a delight, seeing it in the Cadillac Theater, pure decadence in itself, was the cherry on top. The theater is 3 levels of plush crimson and gold, with gorgeous ornate ceilings and walls, and encrusted chandeliers. The theater was so regal, it put me in the mind of a cathedral, and I half expected small cherubs to dive from the balconies. A child of the technology age, my first thought was to whip out my phone and capture this glorious image to share. However, thanks to the lovely and perceptive usher standing up stage left of me who scouted my intentions and informed me that such behavior was not allowed; I was unable to provide an illustration of how gorgeous the theater was. But you are encouraged to find out for yourselves, as Memphis is still running for another two weeks with ticket prices ranging from $37-$95 and are available at all Broadway In Chicago Box Offices.
My idea of a fine musical was a Walt Disney animated motion picture. If I could compare Memphis to a Disney movie, it would be Princess and the Frog doused with a healthy dose of reality and still very prevalent, very real social issues. To elaborate, Memphis is about a young white man named Huey Calhoun who has always identified with Rhythm and Blues music and the African American culture more than his own. He wanders into a night club in downtown Memphis, and falls in love on the spot with the club owner’s sister. Love at first site is usually quite romantic, but in the 1950’s a white man falling for a black woman was also quite dangerous. Memphis examined this racial divide and the surrounding social issues of that time, as well as the culture of Memphis, and the birth of Rock and Roll.
All of my opinions on musicals were changed when I saw Memphis because I was expecting a constant stream of cheer and ridiculous choreography that I had since associated with musicals, but what I experienced instead was a very real, very well rounded plot and performance, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The play kept me delightfully hysterical, laughing quite hard at some points and bringing me near tears at others. Memphis has such a natural, genuine comedic charm to it which made light of certain issues and situations that would have otherwise been too intense or uncomfortable. On the other hand a little uncomfortable-ness is necessary to educate individuals on the racial and social issues that plagued our country not too many years ago. It was good to be reminded of how far things have come, but still how very far things must go.
Being a new convert to the religion of theater-going, I had no previous idea how much talent the cast of a musical possessed. To be able to act, dance, and still muster enough breath and energy to sing! The acting was amazing, the dancing was phenomenal, and the voices were so beautiful and powerful. The leading lady, Miss Felicia Boswell, playing Felicia, was as breathtaking as her voice. She sounded like the most brilliant clarinet, rich and bold with so much range. The leading man Bryan Fenkart, who played Huey Calhoun, was so adorable and endearing, with the voice of a Country Western singer, it was easy to believe that he was a real person. What I found more difficult to believe and accept was the fact that the romance between these two was fictional! The rest of the cast was equivalently just as talented and impressive, proving themselves to be triple threats, and then some.
Memphis’s underlying theme was race in the segregated south, but to me it was much more about love and life and dealing with different ideals and dreams. How people’s decisions or their failure to make decisions affect the rest of their lives; the difference between evolving and remaining static, and how both actions can change someone’s entire world. Memphis was touching, and true to life, humorous, educational, entertaining, satirical, and in the famous words of Huey Calhoun; downright “fantastical!” My threshold for enjoyment was finally met when during the finale when the audience stood up and clapped and danced along with the cast’s final number. I truly felt like a character in my very own Disney movie! If it’s one thing I’ve learned from Memphis it is to never let anyone steal my Rock and Roll, and if you, dear reader, ever find yourself lacking in the Rock and Roll department, Memphis has plenty to go around.