Fall in love with music, magic of 'Memphis'

Bryan Fenkart is oddball disc jockey Huey in the touring company of the Tony-winning Broadway musical “Memphis.”


Rarely does a Broadway touring musical get the kind of intermission buzz going that “Memphis” did on opening night Tuesday at the Orpheum.

We're talking excited, unanimous raves.

Rarer still does a Broadway tour boast the combustible combination of red-hot singers who can act as well as they riff, sharp choreography, a story of depth and substance and heart, and a rock-blues score that would put a smile on Elvis' face.

“Memphis” raised the roof and the temperature on a crisp January night, and the only shame was that the balcony was mostly empty. The nearly 1,700 who saw this show Tuesday will sell it by word of mouth, so don't wait to snap up tickets for the rest of the week.

“Memphis,” the 2010 best-musical Tony winner, is the early-1950s story of Huey Calhoun, an illiterate white man who falls in love with the blues, wangles his way onto the radio as an oddball disc jockey, and plays what was then called “colored music” for a white audience.

In the process of birthing rock 'n' roll's popularity, he falls for black nightclub singer Felicia, causing even more trouble on both sides of the color divide.

You can't really describe on paper what Felicia Boswell does with the part of Felicia. A visual knockout, Boswell has a range of several octaves, soul down to the soles of her feet, a great big voice whose growls and trills and miraculous jazzy riffs can be heard in the back row. Hear her sing “Colored Woman,” or fizzy pop “Someday” or “Love Will Stand,” and I guarantee a thrill you won't forget. Love the way she scoops opening notes, sliding into perfect pitch with styling that makes every song her own.

Plus she makes your heart ache with the strength and pain of what it was to be a black woman in Memphis in the Jim Crow South.

As Huey, Bryan Fenkart sings the guts out of “Music of My Soul,” “Tear Down the House” and the deeply moving “Memphis Lives in Me.” He, too, rips into one blues riff after another while making the slightly goofy character of Huey one you can't help rooting for. In a show with tons of humor, he's a master of comedic timing.

Great singing doesn't stop there. Horace V. Rogers as Felicia's brother, Delray, the nightclub owner; Will Mann as the radio station's janitor, Bobby; Rhett George as Delray's bartender, Gator; and Julie Johnson as Huey's racist mother, Gladys — each in turn will blow you away with the way they belt out a phrase, style and shape a song, make you feel the words behind the music.

The crowd sparked when Rogers played protective big brother on “She's My Sister,” lit up at George's long, long-held notes on “Say a Prayer,” roared for camera-shy Bobby (Mann) on “Big Love” and nearly stopped the show for down-and-dirty Johnson on “Change Don't Come Easy.”

This is powerhouse musical theater on a level you're lucky to see once in a season — or two — on the Orpheum stage. It's that exceptional.

Joe DiPietro's book and David Bryan's score (he's Bon Jovi's Grammy-winning keyboardist) won Tonys as well, and if you get to the Orpheum you'll understand why. Music and story are seamless, and the arc of the story is a great ride.

It brought tears to many an eye Tuesday night. My guess is plenty of people went home singing, and believing, “Memphis Lives in Me.”

MEMPHIS

What: Broadway touring musical

Where: Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St.

When: 7:30 p.m. tonight and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1:30 p.m. and 7p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $25 to $95

Information: 402-345-0606, toll-free 866-434-8587, online at ticketomaha.com or in person at the Holland Performing Arts Center box office, 13th and Douglas Streets.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1269, bob.fischbach@owh.com

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