Memphis – The Musical, the multi-award-winning, Tony carrying, attempt to sum up the intricacies of American race-relations in two hours through the medium of song and dance, which has just opened at The Shaftesbury Theatre, is as polarised as the communities on stage which it seeks to explore.
It’s ostensibly the story of an idiot – albeit a likeable one – a white boy Huey (Killian Donnelly) who works his way from the stockroom of a local ‘white’ department store through a job at a local radio station where he usurps the rather lame fare on offer in favour of ‘black music’ and thereby popularises it to white teenagers, and in doing so is partly responsible for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Of course, along the way he meets and falls in love with a gifted black singer, Felicia (Beverley Knight) against the wishes of his mother, Gladys (Claire Machin), and Felicia’s protective brother, Delray (Rolan Bell), and finally lands a spot on television where he blows everything by kissing Felicia on live TV.
She dumps him in favour of her career, and he ends up on the radio show version of the scrapheap.
It’s not what you’d call an uplifting story, and maybe it’s meant to be a comment on the state of race-relations in the US currently, instead of the 1950’s when it’s set.
The saving grace of the show is in it’s cast who are phenomenal, chief among the being its undoubted star, Beverley Knight who proves herself not only an actress of some surprising nuance, but also has a range which seems to be unparalleled on the London stage today. So much so, in fact, that I wonder if the show would survive without her?
So why is it polarised? Well, for starters, like the ill-fated ‘From Here To Eternity’ which played this same theatre this time last year, you don’t know who’s story you’re supposed to be following, so are divided as to who you are supposed to be cheering for. Again like ‘From Here To Eternity’ the ‘star’ name, then Darius Campbell and here Beverley Knight, isn’t actually the lead character which is the relatively unknown Killian Donnelly (who anyway alternates the role with the much more high profile Jon Robyns).
Memphis has an original score by Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan, with book and (shared credit for) lyrics by Joe DiPietro, though, as the songs are so pastiche, it feels like a jukebox musical. This isn’t helped by the over-reliance on diegetic songs, that is songs which the characters know they are singing, as opposed to ones which grow naturally out of the story. That isn’t to say there isn’t some fantastic music in the show, there is, though nothing that you’d leave the theatre humming.
If you’re looking for a well thought-through plot where all the loose ends are tied up and everything ends happily ever after, then this isn’t the show for you. There are plot-lines aplenty which just happen then disappear again for no particular reason.
There’s an elective mute in the speakeasy run by Felicia’s brother, Delray, who miraculously starts to talk at the end of act one, then seemingly doesn’t stop all through act two. Why? What was it that caused him to be mute in the first place? Why do none of the other characters seem to be in the slightest bit phased by the fact that he’s now talking again?
There a white teenager in act one who suffers domestic abuse at the hands of her father, but we don’t know who she was, what the effect of her being attached was, and never see her again. I could go on…
Perhaps I’m being picky. The audience on opening night lapped it up and gave the cast an extremely well-deserved standing ovation. Perhaps this is a show to which the regular ‘rules’ of story-telling don’t apply. We shall see. Until that time, let it wash over you and don’t think too hard about what’s happening on stage.