Set in Memphis in the segregated 1950s, “Memphis the Musical” tells the story of Felicia (played by Felicia Boswell), a talented African-American singer who performs in a local nightclub and has hopes of scoring a recording contract and becoming a star.
By CHRIS BOURNEA
COLUMBUS OHIO -- “Memphis the Musical,” which played the Ohio Theatre in Columbus May 29-June 3, delivers a foot-tapping good time while exploring racial issues and measuring how far the nation has come since the civil rights movement.
Set in Memphis in the segregated 1950s, “Memphis the Musical” tells the story of Felicia (played by Felicia Boswell), a talented African-American singer who performs in a local nightclub and has hopes of scoring a recording contract and becoming a star. Huey (Bryan Fenkart), a White music fan, turns up one night at the all-Black nightclub where Felicia performs because of his love of soul music. There is an immediate attraction between Felicia and Huey, but they both know that interracial relationships are forbidden.
Felicia and the nightclub patrons are wary of Huey breaking the city’s long-held segregation laws by venturing to the Black side of town, but they soon come to see that he’s genuine in his desire to support R&B music. Huey channels his passion for so-called “race records” into a deejay job at a Memphis radio station. With his irreverent, flamboyant personality, Huey quickly becomes the most popular local deejay on the airwaves.
As Huey’s star rises, he is determined to help Felicia realize her dreams. Despite the dangers of race mixing, Felicia and Huey begin a secret affair. Huey wants to bring their relationship out in the open, but Felicia tries to make him understand how they could literally be risking their lives by expressing affection in public.
The plot thickens when Huey makes the leap from radio to television, starting a Memphis version of “American Bandstand.” But unlike “Bandstand,” Huey’s show features only R&B artists and African-American background dancers. Just as Huey’s star is rising, Felicia’s career starts to take off and she gets an offer from a big recording company in New York.
Felicia and Huey find themselves at a crossroads. A national television network expresses interest in picking up Huey’s show, but the catch is that he would be required to replace the African-American dancers with White ones in order to appease conservative advertisers and appeal to a “mainstream” audience. Huey flat-out refuses to segregate his show, but Felicia tries to persuade him that he might want to reconsider the offer so that they can get out of Memphis.
Felicia tries in vain to convince Huey that the only way they can truly be together, bring their relationship out in the open, get married and start a family is to move North. Felicia is eager to start over in New York City, where the record company that offered her a contract is based. Huey insists that the only place he belongs is his beloved hometown, which the cast conveys in the moving number “Memphis Lives in Me.”
Determined not to be held back by Jim Crow, Felicia makes a tough choice to leave Huey behind and set off for New York. A few years later, she returns to Memphis as a star and brings her concert tour to a local theater. Huey has not been as fortunate, having been relegated to a small radio station that hardly anyone listens to. Felicia and Huey reunite, not romantically, but become friends when he joins her onstage at her concert to announce her triumphant return.
“Memphis” doesn’t exactly have a happy ending, but a satisfying one nonetheless. Boswell and Fenkart have chemistry and are convincing as lovers. Boswell, Fenkart and the other cast members are top-notch singers and dancers, and the show’s music, sets and costumes capture the feel of the 1950s.
“Memphis” sheds light on the complexity of race and issues that are still relevant today. When Huey criticizes Felicia for being timid about challenging society’s close-minded attitudes about their interracial relationship, she tells him that he’s speaking from a place of White privilege: “You have choices. You get to be White whenever you choose.”
“Memphis” also portrays how early pop music often “borrowed” the creativity of Black artists without giving them credit. When a record executive asks Felicia if she can sing rock and roll, she replies, “Of course. Rock music is nothing but Negro blues sped up.”
“Memphis the Musical” was an interesting show to see in an era when the nation has its first Black president -- something that many who were alive during the show’s 1950s setting thought they would never see. “Memphis” is currently on a national tour and is scheduled to return to Ohio in early 2013 when it plays the Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center beginning Jan. 22. For more information, visit Memphisthemusical.com.