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Thursday, June 14, 2012

'Memphis' in June at the Kennedy Center is hot not

The biggest weakness in this traveling musical is the music. Yes, the music. The dancing is terrific, the action will keep you engaged, the costumes are dazzling and fun to check out, and the vocals are absolutely glorious once you can get past the first few scenes and can hear them over the big bass but, the music...

I know, I know Memphis received the Tony in 2010 for Best Musical and Best Original Score, but the songs are the same and repetitious (except for "Change Don't Come Easy"). Have any transferred to the popular charts?

The story is based on the ideas and dreams of a real life white disc jockey in Memphis (Bryan Fenkart: The man can sing! Dance! Act!) who thinks black music has a wider audience than just among black folks, and the perpetually enthusiastic dreamer sets out to, as they say, follow his passion. That he persists in the antagonistic environment of the 1950s is remarkable.

That he has a black girlfriend is astonishing, too.  And that performance by Felicia Boswell as "Felicia" (same name) is equally as classy as Fenkart's. 

The threesome male dancers ("Be Black Trio," Alfie Parker, Jr., Jarvis D. McKinley, and Justin Prescott) will make you question what you are seeing: Were those just splits in mid-air or what? (Be careful and avoid locking your eyes on their shimmering costumes or you'll miss spectacular dance steps. As a matter of fact, costumes for the entire production (Paul Tazewell) were correct in every detail.  Lots of Fab 50s dresses.)

It’s hard to imagine better dancing than that in Memphis (Sergio Trujillo), however, it was not nominated for a Tony Best Choreography which may say something about the competition (or politics).

Ms. Boswell reminded me again and again of Diana Ross and how exact she would be in a Diana Ross role, and program notes reveal she's played Ms. Ross more than once.

The scenes change frequently and are nothing special except for the apartment dwelling of Huey (Fenkart) and his mom (who almost steals the show as played by Julie Johnson).

Of local interest: the director, Christopher Ashley, received a Helen Hayes Award in Washington for Direction for Sweeney Todd; lighting designer, Howell Binkley, is a five-time Helen Hayes recipient; ensemble member, Whitney Leigh Brown, is a native of the District who attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts; and assistant stage manager, Tiffany N. Robinson, graduated from Howard University.

At the end of opening night, the audience gave the performance a standing ovation which is becoming de rigueur at the Kennedy Center, it seems, but it may have been the Heat.

What: Memphis
When: Now through July 1, 2012 (with dark Mondays)
Where: Opera House, Kennedy Center
How much: Tickets start at $39
For more information: 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600
Metro station: Foggy Bottom and ride the free KenCen shuttle found at the top of the escalators or walk over (about a half mile)

Rating:  X (some foul language, but no F-bombs)

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