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A CurtainUp London London Review

"All rock and roll music is Negro music sped up!" &mdash Felicia
Cast in Memphis (Photo: Johan Persson)
Memphis, a small town in Tennessee, is home to the music careers of many American musical greats— Otis Reading, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and of course Elvis Presley. But Memphis the musical concentrates on the birth of Rhythm and Blues and a white DJ (partially based on real life Dewey Phillips) who widened the appreciation of this music beyond its black originators to the whole world.

As I read Simon Saltzman's review of Memphis in New York in 2009, the expression damning with faint praise came to mind. However faint praise doesn't apply to the recast production with British (and Irish) singers and dancers, which is quite simply terrific and deserving of real praise! Beverley Knight as female lead Felicia, is one our very best soul singers and she gives her all in some wonderful heart rending rock and soul ballads from composer David Bryan, Jon Bon Jovi's keyboard player. The male lead is Killian Donnelly from Ireland who not only can belt out the harmonies in pitch perfect style but has great acting and even dance ability honed by taking the young leads in many of the West End's enduring musicals. He also makes us smile with his warm, quirky personality.

What delighted me about Memphis was the imaginative staging. The musical starts in the Beale Street Club, a black only club that white man Huey Calhoun (Killian Donnelly) stumbles into and discovers an exciting new form of music, which becomes Rhythm and Blues. Starting a job in the record section of a department store, Huey changes a Perry Como ballad, sung on stage by the crooner in a cardigan, to "Scratch My Itch", a vibrant rock number where the singers come to life above the shop, framed by 78 vinyl records. Dancing on the shop counter, the talented dancers will perform cartwheels and back flips, Sergio Trujillo's choreography is as exciting as the music and perfectly executed.

Huey, blessed with the gift of the gab, goes on to talk himself into the DJ spot at a local radio station and by playing the new"race" music, he builds up an audience of young white followers as well as black fans. All this is happening in 1955 as Rosa Parks is staging her bus protest in Alabama and the segregation laws of the south of the USA are about to change. So Memphis reflects that change as people break down the colour barriers of music and reminds us how much progress has been made in 60 years.

Felicia's brother Delray (Rolan Bell) is deeply suspicious of Huey and protective of his sister. Romance between Felicia and Huey meets problems both from Huey's mother Gladys (Claire Machin) and a gang of racists who physically attack Huey and Felicia. They are encouraged to go to New York where mixed race couples are more readily accepted but it doesn't work out.

David Bryan's tunes are exciting, true to the era and crowd pleasing. I can't think of a better musical with its earthy tunes and stand out pleasurable performances from a killer pair of singers in Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly.

The high energy choreography is a highlight of Memphis. A scene set in a playground has girls jumping with double skipping ropes and the black kids are joined by white kids in "Radio"illustrating how music brings youth together. The men excel with dramatic jumps and leaps. There are strong cameo parts too. Jason Pennycooke as Bobby the barman gets his opportunity on Huey's TV show in "Big Love".

So many of our West End musicals have been weak on choreography or we have shows which are just dance but no singing. Memphis scores on every count, great music, exhilarating dancers and superlative singing.

For the review of Memphis in New York in 2009, the full plot and a complete song list go here.

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Book and Lyrics by Joe Dipietro
Music and Lyrics by David Bryan
Based on a concept by George W George
Directed by Christopher Ashley

Starring: Beverley Knight, Killian Donnelly, Rolan Bell, Tyrone Huntley, Claire Machin, Jason Pennycooke, Mark Roper
With: Keisha Atwell, Rachel John, Jon Robyns, Arielle Campbell, Mark Carroll, Joseph Davenport, Momar Diagne, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Hilary Elk, Laura Ellis, Kimmy Edwards, Charlotte Gorton, Benjamin Harrold, Waylon Jacobs, Dean Maynard, Devon McKenzie-Smith, Tim Newman, Simon Ray-Harvey, Ashley Rumble, Kyle Seeley, Helen siveter, Dawnita Smith, Alex Thomas
Choreography by Sergio Trujillo
US Musical Supervisor: Christopher Jankhe
UK Musical Supervisor: Nick Finlow
Designer: David Gallo
Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell
Musical Director: Tim Sutton
Sound Design: Gareth Owen
Designed by Tim Hatley
Lighting: Howell Binkley
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7379 5399
Booking to 31st October 2015
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th October 2014 performance at The Shaftesbury Theatre, 210 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8DP (Tube: Holborn or Tottenham Court Road)
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