Given that I’m incredibly privileged in my theatregoing, it’s not very often I get a crippling case of ‘audience envy’ as severe as I have done in the months I had to endure leading up to seeing the musical Memphis. Myself and my dad had tried on numerous different occasions, failed and when my good friend Kristine finally managed to near Christmas of 2014 for February, we had to reschedule as we already had a matinee booked, and the evening performance didn’t have the wheelchair space free. I was hearing incredible things about this show from left, right and centre; every one of my theatre loving pals who had seen it were raving about it and encouraging me to see it as soon as I was able, but unfortunately I had to wait longer for my chance. Fortunately though, when my chance did roll around a couple weeks ago… I’m extremely happy to report it didn’t disappoint.
Set in 1950’s Memphis, the musical follows Huey Calhoun, a DJ who dreams of bring the sound of the ‘underground to the masses, and Felicia Farrell, a club singer who is waiting for her big break. Add to the mix a cast of characters that includes Felicia’s overprotective brother Delray, Huey’s mother Gladys and friends of Delray’s Bobby & Gator, what you have is a story that encompasses forbidden love, laughter, soul and a bucket load of rock n’ roll!
I had specifically made a point of not listening to the cast recording of this production before seeing the show, as I often like to do with shows I’m new to. I’m glad I held off in this instance, as David Bryan and Joe Dipietro’s music and lyrics combined really got under my skin and did something really special; I’m known for getting emotional at the touching parts of shows, but Memphis had me crying for sheer joy during many of its upbeat moments, which is something I’ve never experienced with live theatre before. The songs are slick, sassy and radiate tremendous heart and energy, and I kid you not, every single song got a thunderous round of applause and a whoop of approval from me, and I was constantly moving to the music in some shape or form. On that score I was grateful for once that being confined to four wheels mean I can only sit in one specific place in the entirety of most theatres; it means I could get really into dancing without annoying anyone as it’s only me and my friend up in the Box, and they’re often as taken with the beats as I am. Speaking of dancing, I have to talk about Sergio Trujillo’s award winning and utterly glorious choreography. It’s relentless in its energy and I couldn’t take my eyes off the massively talented ensemble who help bring it to life; there’s backflips, splits and all kinds of awesome manoeuvres, I struggled to know where to look and wanted to take everything in, a particularly special mention must go to the incredible Jason Pennycooke as Bobby who blew me away during Big Love.
From a final creative point of view before I ramble on about the cast, the other major thing that struck me about the show is how slick the design is as a whole, I particularly enjoyed the introduction to Everybody Wants To Be Black on a Saturday Night, where the singers emerge from a record. It was really refreshing to see a production packed with so much to delight the eyes as well as the ears with David Gallo on Set Design and Paul Tazewell on Cosumes… there were multiple occasions where I was insanely jealous of Felicia’s wardrobe!
One of my biggest problems with musical theatre is that I struggle to find female characters I can really emotionally connect with, and feel that generally they aren’t as well rounded or as interesting to me as many of their male counterparts. There are a handful of exceptions to this rule, with Felicia being one. She is played by the wonderful Beverley Knight, who in my third outing to see her on a West End stage, continues to blow my mind with her soulful, soaring vocal that suits David Bryan’s score down to the ground. Colored Woman and Love Will Stand When All Else Falls were among my highlights of the entire show, and as on the previous occasions I saw her in The Bodyguard, I still believe Beverley is one of very few ladies whose performance has elicited some of the most rapturous applause I’ve ever come across. Her take on Felicia is incredibly sassy which for me was refreshing to see in a female character anyway, but she manages to balance this wonderfully with grace and sensitivity that made Felicia’s tender, more vulnerable moments just as engaging to watch.
Killian Donnelly is a rockstar as Huey. I adored his boundless energy and the effortless charm he brings to the role, and it was wonderful to see him in a role so different to the last I’d seen him in, as Tony in the musical version of Billy Elliot. As Huey, he gets to belt some incredible tunes, including his roof-raising, spine tingling rendition of Memphis Lives in Me, and generally let loose and be a little crazy, which is a joy to watch purely because his enthusiasm radiates off of him and is truly infectious. His smile lit up the room, and like Beverley with Felicia, he brings great honesty and conviction to Huey’s softer side.
The relationship between Felicia and Huey is a bit of a slow burner in comparison to most musicals I know, and I enjoyed that subtlety; Killian and Beverley complement each other beautifully and I loved the way they both made every gesture towards each other seem meaningful however small it was. There’s a scene where Felicia has written a new song, and Huey comes to kneel by her chair and holds her hand. Killian’s expression and eyes in that moment are so intense and seem so full of love it broke my heart.
Rolan Bell brings endearing tenacity to the role of Delray; he has one of the most incredibly rich, marvellous soulful voices I’ve ever heard. Delray is fiercely protective of Felicia, and as such is mistrustful of Huey. The two share a duet called She’s My Sister, and it was awesome to watch them play off against one other as they each have a charming kind of swagger. Two other special mentions go to Waylon Jacobs who was on for Gator and moved me to tears, and Claire Machin whose solo number had me in fits of laughter with her ever sharp comic timing.
I think the biggest compliment I can give Memphis is the fact that I left with a ridiculous smile and a feeling very very close to the kind of buzz that I get once I’ve watched my all time favourite London show (if you know me and the show I mean, you’ll realise I don’t say that lightly! 😉) I was so smitten with everything about it that a mere few days following this visit, I booked a return for mid June before Killian goes off for new stagey adventures. I’m counting down the days. Hockadoo!