Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Theatre review: Memphis the Musical



Set in 1950s Tennessee, when racial segregation was still a distinct part of society in the southern part of the States, we meet rhythm and blues-loving Huey Calhoun (Killian Donnelly).

He's not very good at holding down a job, but his contagious love for soulful songs eventually leads him to landing a slot on the local radio station and he quickly gathers a loyal following of impressionable teenagers who share his rebellious taste in Rock 'n' Roll music.

His rapid rise to fame causes outrage among many of the older locals, however, because while he promotes and plays tunes from black performers, both Huey and the majority of his adolescent fans are white.


©Photo by Johan Persson

Running parallel to Huey's story is that of Felicia (Beverly Knight), a singer in a black rock and roll bar owned by her brother Delray.

One night when he's wandering the streets, Huey follows the hypnotising sounds of Felicia's voice into the bar and, while initially he's perceived as completely cuckoo for showing his white-boy face in the establishment, he soon becomes friends with the locals and falls in love with the star performer.

But at a time when African-American Rosa Parks makes headlines for not giving up her seat on the bus to a white person, both government laws and prejudice stand forcefully between Huey and Felicia's growing romantic relationship.


©Photo by Johan Persson

With a focus on subject matter as loaded as racial discrimination it's surprising how joyful and exciting this show, which has a book and music by David Bryan and Joe Dipietro, truly is.

From the very first moment the curtain goes up, Memphis is a thrilling spectacle which has more than just hints of the upbeat contagiousness from Hairspray and is filled to the brim with slick and wildly impressive choreography reminiscent of West Side Story.

Plentiful with catchy tunes, colourful costumes, funny one-liners and a gimmicky set design, it is obvious from the start why this soulful show won the Tony Award for Best Musical. And having had a chance to grow and evolve on Broadway, where it ran for three successful years, the production currently gracing the London boards is polished to a tee.


©Photo by Johan Persson

While the entire production seemed flawless, with the large ensemble providing beautiful harmonies during the big group numbers, Killian Donnelly and Beverly Knight were the ones who really shone on that Shaftesbury stage.

Donnelly's Huey was endearing and bonkers at the same time, and with his funny improvisations he frequently had the audience in stitches. Knight is probably best known to the general public as a pop singer and it can always be risky to stuntcast a vital role in a musical but she more than held her own; her powerful pipes stole the show on more than one occasion.

I generally watch several productions each week, but it has been a very long time since I've been this impressed by a newly opened show in the West End. It single-handedly brings the glitz and glamour of a slick and stylish Broadway show-stopping spectacle to London, paving the streets to the Shaftesbury Theatre with soul and Rock 'n' Roll.


©Photo by Johan Persson




Memphis the Musical is playing at the Shaftesbury Theatre and is currently taking bookings until 28 March 2015, you can buy tickets here.

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