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Memphis The Musical - Shaftesbury Theatre (review)

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

I COULD make this short and sweet by simply stating that it’s good – no, very good – and urge you to add it to your list of must-sees, but that would hardly do it justice for Memphis The Musical is quite simply stunning.

Winner of four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score (David Bryan and Joe DiPietro), Best Book (Joe DiPietro), and Best Orchestrations (David Bryan and Daryl Waters), Memphis has just burst onto the West End stage in a kaleidoscopic fusion of colour, vibrancy, electrifying music and high energy dance routines.

But Memphis is much more than a catalogue of musical numbers. It’s about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. And woven into the mix is a love story with a difference.

Set in the Memphis of the 1950s, it follows the fortunes of maverick radio DJ Huey Calhoun (Killian Donnelly), who wants to change the world, and club singer Felicia Farrell (Beverley Knight), who’s hoping her big break is just around the corner. Against all the odds, they meet and fall in love.

But as I’ve already indicated, this is no ordinary love story because Huey is white and Felicia is black and they live in an era of segregation. It’s hard to believe now but in the 1950s interracial marriages were banned in Tennessee and many other US states, so romantic liaisons between white and black spelt only trouble.

Donnelly is superb as the unconventional leading man. With a commanding stage presence and an engaging manner, his Huey not only wins Felicia’s love but the adoration of the audience. And he can certainly sing – as you would expect from someone who has played leading roles in high profile productions such as The Commitments, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. And is it me or are there shades of Robin Williams’ Adrian Cronauer (Good Morning, Vietnam) in his performance?

It’s for good reason that Beverley Knight is considered the Queen of British soul and as Felicia, there’s no denying she delivers the goods. Yet despite the power and amazing vocal range of her voice, she imbues her character with a disarming vulnerability that makes her immensely likeable. And there’s just enough on stage chemistry between Felicia and Huey to make their love believable.

In fact, I cannot fault the cast in any way and to mention one and not another would be to do them a grave injustice. And the dance routines are impeccable, Sergio Trujillo’s choreography breathtaking; the sequence where black compete against white for supremacy reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’ staging of The Jets versus The Sharks in West Side Story. And it doesn’t get much better than that.

David Gallo’s sets glide effortlessly about the stage and Paul Tazewell’s costumes dazzle. The script is witty and at times laugh-out-loud funny but it can also shock, on at least two occasions eliciting audible gasps from the audience. If I have one gripe – and it’s a small one – it’s with the volume. If there was a dial, like on a radio, I would turn it down just a little as occasionally the words of musical numbers were lost to me.

All in all this is a very fine production – it’s thought-provoking yet at the same time immensely entertaining. Memphis has arrived in London and I think it’s here to stay for quite some time.

Memphis Photo Gallery

Memphis is currently booking at the Shaftesbury Theatre until March 28, 2015.