From the first moment Beverley Knight slinks an elegantly turned ankle on to the stage of the Shaftesbury theatre, Memphis the Musical pulsates with mesmeric star quality. A Soul career has prepared Beverley well – holding the audience in rapt thrall at every note. Yet more than that, her recent leading lady status in The Bodyguard means that, crucially, she also grasps theatre stagecraft.
Ms Knight is easily the best thing about Memphis – though that’s a statement of her talent more than a criticism of the show. Musical numbers fire off in rapid succession, with inch perfect choreography and a tightly drilled cast which delivers with more energy than a large Hadron collider.
Memphis started life in 2001, the concept of George W George with book & lyrics by Tony© Award nominee Joe DiPietro, and tells the story of Radio DJ Huey Calhoun’s fight to bring Rock’n’Roll to a still racially segregated 1950s America. Colour blind Huey falls for singer Felicia (Knight) and unlike the Radio and TV executives, is colour blind – much to the chagrin of his mother Gladys (Claire Machin) and Felicia’s protective brother Delray (Rolan Bell).
I had the nagging feeling that this monochrome story has been told before, either more colourfully (Hairspray), more powerfully (Ragtime) or more enduringly (West Side Story). Memphis feels for all the world like a jukebox musical, and in less gifted hands, it could have been. The music at times seems a little painted on, but that’s also the show’s unique charm. Grammy® Award-winner (and Bon Jovi founding member) David Bryan’s songs have that familiar ring which truly great works inspire on their very first listening. As musical theatre numbers they may fail to move the story along, but for once that doesn’t really matter. They are instant classics; they are also in very safe hands.
When Knight unfurls her full vocal splendour, there are shades of Randy Crawford, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. Her vocal chords are strung as tightly as a Tennessee banjo; there’s more light and shade in a single lyric than a Southern forest floor in the fall. The worry for producers must be what happens when her contract ends?
In such company, it would be easy to overlook Killian Donnelly as Radio DJ Huey Calhoun. Like Marmite, he works well with cheese but isn’t everyone’s thing. When Huey asks his mother “Did you ever expect me to be good at anything” her reply is a droll “No”. In early scenes I almost felt the same, with Donnelly seeming to play Calhoun with an emotional range somewhere between Sylvester Sneekly and
Chandler Bing. But as the show ramps up so does Donnelly and by the finale, he is a vocal surfer riding the quest of a sound-wave, matching Ms Knight note for note. Donnelly’s strength lies in a natural ability to internalise emotion; at times he is a coiled spring, at others a combustion engine.
Structurally, I felt that there was some back story missing. Two opening musical numbers in quick succession, rather than setting the scene, come at the expense of characterisation. Act one is a little like watching an identity parade with characters simply rock’n’rolling on and off. Act two is more mellifluous and only hits the rapids with a poorly staged fight which could (and should) send you reeling, but rather leaves you feeling like you’ve just been roughed up by a couple of escaped chorus boys and will probably be fine after a nice lie down.
In an otherwise competent production, the stage lighting proves a challenge too far for the cameras used in Huey’s TV show. There were technical problems for a few moments when the camera seemed to be following the action back-to-front which, even if it was a stylistic choice, just looked odd.
Despite all this, the sensational final few numbers are belted out with power and passion, delivering one spine tingling note after another, and any flaws are forgotten. Would I see Memphis again? Yep. Would I buy the soundtrack? You betcha.
From 9 October 2014 to 31 October 2015 at the Shaftesbury Theatre
Niall R Palmer