A new musical of stonking entertainment with a big heart and even bigger singing talent from Killian Donnelly and Beverley Knight.
A gaudy explosion of well-intentioned hubris, the utter ridiculousness of Broadway import ‘Memphis the Musical’ is, mercifully, matched by a big heart and even bigger singing talent.
Loosely based on the lives of pioneering American DJs Dewey Phillips and Alan Freed, ‘Memphis’ concerns lovable wildman Huey (Killian Donnelly) and his dizzying ascent to number one radio and television personality in Memphis, Tennessee. This he does by becoming the first to play the great black music of the early ’50s to an eager young white audience.
So far so good, but in a hysterically unselfconscious gesture, all the songs in ‘Memphis’ are originals, penned by one David Bryan, a middle-aged white guy with a fun perm whose day job is playing keys in Bon Jovi.
Now, of course Bryan has the right to write about this era, and of course the songs are loving homages to a period in rock and soul history that he clearly adores. But the bottom line is that – even ignoring the whiff of white male privilege – there’s a recurrent bathos each time Huey drops a ho-hum Little Richard-ish song instead of the scintillating real deal – the inclusion of even a smattering of period classics would have pepped ‘Memphis’ up no end.
There are also problems with Joe DiPietro’s wonky book. Though the hideous racism of ’50s Tennessee is duly stressed, nothing much really occurs to slow the ascent of Huey’s star and his relationship with shy black soul singer Felicia (Beverley Knight) until the last ten minutes, in which so much stuff happens so quickly that I left slightly bewildered.
But for all that, Christopher Ashley’s production is inescapably fabulous, with two near-faultless leads. Looking like he’s fresh from a heist on Justin Timberlake’s wardrobe, Donnelly is a joy to watch: rangy, with an anarchic charisma and adorably eccentric chicken dance. Knight’s acting is more functional, but her singing is absolutely stupendous – she can belt it out no probs, but she also has tremendous nuance and restraint. It’s a real vocal tour de force, and one that certainly elevates Bryan’s songs several serious notches. Sergio Trujillo’s snappy, aerobic choreography is an extra thrill.
Basically, if you want a brutally brilliant civil rights musical, head across town to ‘The Scottsboro Boys’; it you’re after a stonking entertainment with less social smarts but lots of warm intentions, book yourself a ticket to ‘Memphis’.