The audience had no trouble taking the advice of Tony Award-winning musical "Memphis" in its final moments Tuesday night at the Sacramento Community Center. In a high-spirited finale, the cast sang, "Listen to the beat. Play it, obey it. Love it with your feet. Listen to your soul… let it make you whole." The lyrics embody three hours of soulful music, standout humor, and endearing characters that deliver a wonderful time for audiences. But the musical still fails to satisfy audiences looking to leave emotionally moved and intellectually challenged.
Much like its peer, "Hairspray," "Memphis" follows an important period of American history when blacks and whites were segregated. In the South, the rise of rock n roll sparks social change. Based on several real radio hosts, Huey Calhoun introduces rhythm and blues to Memphis, rejecting white tradition to love an African-American woman and her music. The couple's journey builds until an almost depressing ending that makes a questionable turnaround. Instead of concluding with Calhoun's epic solo, "Memphis Lives In Me," or giving the audience a reason to believe sacrifice can lead to change, writer Joe DiPietro and composer David Bryan opted to add a peppy finale and to end on a high note.
"Memphis" just doesn't come across as "best musical" material. That doesn't negate the many notches it has added to its belt and deserved since its Broadway debut. Its disappointing finale does not prevent it from providing a good time. And the musical does have its share of serious moments. A first act finale is a real tearjerker. David Gallo's creative sets take audiences from the underground nightclub to the various radio stations of Memphis. Projections help construct a second act TV studio. Sergio Trujillo's athletic choreography uses jump ropes and other engaging techniques. David Byran's rocking, catchy songs are memorable – a soundtrack worth listening to over and over again.
The touring cast lives up to high standards set by the original Broadway cast, as well. PBS recorded and sells the Broadway production on video, but seeing the show live provides a much more enjoyable experience. Leads Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart both worked as covers for the Broadway production. Boswell doesn't have Montego Glover's conviction, and her diction is sometimes difficult to understand, but Boswell's powerhouse voice impresses from start to finish. Fenkart's accent and mannerisms aren't as annoying and exaggerated as those of Chad Kimball, creating a far more pleasant and relatable character, although that accent does keep Fenkart from using the full thrust of his voice.
A fantastic supporting cast and ensemble pulls the touring production together. Rhett George inspires in "Say A Prayer." Horace V. Rogers and Will Mann have strong voices as Delray and Bobby, and Julie Johnson steals the show as Huey's mama, Gladys.
The script may not be perfect, but the casting in nearly so, and when each factor comes together for the "Memphis" tour, the production blows the roof away with its spirit and energy.
Broadway Sacramento - California Musical Theatre
Sacramento Community Center
Through November 4