Theater Review: “Memphis” at the Kennedy Center

The Tony-winning rock musical stops by the KenCen in this vibrant production.

By: Missy Frederick

Huey Calhoun isn’t the brightest guy in the pantheon of musical theater leading men. He’s an unapologetic hick, and completely stubborn, not to mention a terrible dresser. But when embodied by Bryan Fenkart in Memphis, the guy oozes everyman charm.

In the show’s national tour, now playing at the Kennedy Center, Calhoun is the first white deejay to embrace “race music,” the first hints of rock-and-roll that were coming out of black rhythm and blues clubs during the 1950s. Calhoun fully realizes his passion for the music when visiting Delray’s, an underground bar on the “wrong” side of town. He stumbles (well, forces) his way onto the air on a fifth-rate radio station, and when the kids go wild for the music he’s spinning, he begins his unlikely rise to fame, taking with him a talented black singer, Felicia (Felicia Boswell), and stirring up trouble and romance along the way.

Memphis cleaned up at the Tonys back in 2010, taking home the Best Musical award among others, and the show achieves many of the traditional pleasures of the old-fashioned musical. The plot, with its themes of ambition, underlying racial tension, and finding common ground through music and dance, is fairly conventional, but the songs, from Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, are bluesy and warm, from Felicia’s first radio smash, “Someday,” to the plaintive civil rights anthem “Say a Prayer.” Huey’s character does have a place in the pantheon of glorified Caucasian characters required to bring white and black folks together in the realm of Hollywood-style storytelling, but the ultimate resolution of Memphis’s storyline doesn’t feel too sterilized.

The Kennedy Center show, directed by Christopher Ashley, has flashy jewel-toned costumes and highly stylized choreography from Sergio Trujillo. Trujillo’s routines don’t feel particularly natural or spontaneous, but the precise movements and athleticism of Memphis’s dancers are impressive, particularly when the heavyset Bobby (Will Mann) takes the stage to jam his way through the infectious “Big Love” on Huey’s television, an American Bandstand-like show with black dancers.

The cast of Memphis is stocked with talent, from its ensemble to its supporting roles. Quentin Earl Darrington, recently seen on the Kennedy Center stage as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in its Ragtime revival, brings a hefty, guarded presence to Delray, Felicia’s protective brother, though bits of humor and compassion shine through his rough exterior. Huey’s mother, played by Julie Johnson, delivers an unexpected showstopper with the gospel-inspired “Change Don’t Come Easy.” And then there’s the leading lady of Memphis, Boswell, whose singing swings from sweet to sultry. She’s a performer who throws her entire body into the songs of the plucky character who shares her first name.

Memphis is at the Kennedy Center through July 1. Running time: about two and a half hours, with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets ($39 to $115) are available through the Kennedy Center’s website.