@DescantDeb Reviews ‘Memphis’ The West End Musical Starring Beverley Knight


I want to go live in poverty in 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, and I want Beverley Knight to be my best friend.

Theoretically one of those things could still happen. In fact it CAN happen, because I can go get another ticket, get myself down to The Shaftesbury Theatre and experience Memphis, The Musical all over again!

This award-winning musical arrived in London from a ‘smash hit Broadway run’ and ‘a triumphant 55-city North American tour’, and has been previewing since 9th October 2014. Officially, it opens October 23rd and runs until January 2015.
This is a boy-meets-girl, despite, well… everything! Protective siblings, poverty, violence and, of course (it being 1951 in the American South), race.

‘Coloured’ girl Felicia Farrell is a beautiful singer working out of her brother’s nightclub – Delray’s. Dirt-poor white boy Huey Calhoun (Killian Donnelly) has absolutely NO sense of style, but has ‘blues is in his soul’. He ventures into the dark side of town and into Felicia’s life, determined to have her for himself and to hear her voice and the music they both love played on mainstream radio. Things don’t run smoothly, but they’re not run-of-the-mill, either. The comedy is subtle one moment, slapstick the next and is a joy. There are some genuinely gasp-worthy dramatic moments, and I found it interesting that the two uses of the *N* word produced just such a reaction, but the use of ‘cracker’ went by unnoticed. And no, it doesn’t mean cream-cracker, it means whip-cracker.

Beverley Knight plays the insanely talented singer Farrell. There, that’s all you need to know. Because if you have never heard Ms Knight sing live… she SINGS in this show. I mean, traditionally, musical theatre is very much its own animal – the singing, a ‘trained classical voice’ somewhat brassy in quality guided by ‘uniform factors’, enunciating. But, Ms Knight’s got a deep soul and she reaches all the way down and gives it all up. In. Every. Song.
She sings around half of the numbers and she does things with that voice that X-Factor-Pop-Idols can only fantasise about, as they plug in their auto-tunes and electronic voice modulators. Ms Knight’s melismatic expression is a physically emotional experience for the soul-searching listener, be it blues or gospel. She can pack tens of notes into a single syllable up and down the scale, and does so with apparent ease, making her easily comparable to the legendary Ms Whitney Houston.

She is well-supported by a super-strong, talented cast with stand-out performances from Rolan Brown as Delray – an OMG bass with bags of cool; Jason Pennycooke as the incredibly charismatic Bobby, who will blow your mind with moves not even he knew he had; and Tyrone Huntley as Gator, who will simply cause you to dissolve on the spot the first time he sings. It was also great to see Jon Robyns fresh from Dessa Rose, too.

So, here’s the thing.

At least half of the corps and most of the immediate supporting cast is black and one of the leads is black, but this show didn’t feel entirely… ‘black’. I suppose that must be the basis of the broad appeal of the concept – no-one is made to feel particularly ‘alienated’. But whether it’s because it is a musical theatre show or whether it is that the writers aren’t black either, the show doesn’t entirely convince as an authentically black production.

Don’t get me wrong, it has plenty going for it – high energy, emotional weight and it rocks, as it should! The music is by Bon Jovi keyboardist and backing singer David Bryan, the book is by multi-Tony award-winning Joe Di Pietro and they share credit for the lyrics. Anyone who has ever heard Bon Jovi know they got soul. But as far as I know, this is Di Pietro’s first ‘race’ piece.
But, then I found out exactly what it is that doesn’t quite feel right. Although Ms Knight stars and most of the promotional pictures feature a cast in colour, etc., this story is loosely based on the life of “Daddy-O” Dewey Phillips, a white pioneering disc jockey who died in 1968. This is Huey’s story, not Felicia’s. It’s a really subtle thing, but it’s palpable and a little disappointing.

So, that itch scratched, my cultural dis-ease explained, I still think this is a pretty great production. Award-winning director Christopher Ashley has a solid background in mainstream musical theatre and he has done a fine job here. The accents hardly slip at all, the less-than-convincing fight scenes are too short to matter, and he has garnered very polished, hugely enjoyable performances from his cast.
Musical director Tim Sutton and his band were utterly fantastic, managing to sound exactly like an über-cool night club band… with cojones! Award-winning choreographer Sergio Trujillo turned up the energy of the dramatic performances with dance moves that were innovative, expressive and just beautiful to watch. He has those dancers working hard up there for the audience, and they fully commit. Stage Managers Beverley Elsa and Robert Le Maistre deserve a special mention, because they used the entire stage in the most ingenious of ways.

So! Go see this musical. It earned a full-house standing ovation, but be warned… Ms Knight will appear in all performances only until October 27th inclusively. Thereafter, she will NOT perform in Monday evening or Wednesday matinee performances. Book your tickets carefully, people, but book ’em, because Beverley Knight is GRRREEEEAT!

For information of performance times, assisted performances, ticket information, etc., visit http://www.shaftesburytheatre.com/



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