They say that there is no story left untold. Perhaps that’s true. But it certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop telling them in new and more interesting ways. The Broadway musical "Memphis" is "Romeo and Juliet," and "West Side Story," and even "Hairspray," and that’s okay by me, because star-crossed love is great theme for a Broadway musical.
The show is set in the 1950’s and was inspired by the true-life story of DJ Dewey Phillips, credited with the integration of American radio from the late ’40s to the late ’50s. Hence the name of the central character in Memphis, Huey, played with aplomb by Bryan Fenkart in the current tour.
Watching Fenkart onstage, one can quickly forget that he’s an actor. Fenkart imbues the role of Huey with such verve. He has a fantastic voice for starters. But he also boasts the kind of energy that demands attention whenever he is onstage, which is almost the entire time in "Memphis," as he is only off stage for 10 minutes throughout the entire performance.
The story goes something like this: Huey is drawn into a nightclub because of the music he hears. He goes in and is the only white there. But because he loves the music, the club goers soon accept him. He equally as quickly falls in love with Felicia, the sister of the club owner who sings in the club. Huey promises to make her famous.
He wants to play her music and that of other African-American artists on local radio stations. So he sets out to find a job as disc jockey. Door after door is slammed in his face. Finally, one says yes and it’s all up from there. Kids love his music.
His radio show becomes number one. He gets a TV show, which becomes number one. He and Felicia become a couple. Then she gets called up to the big leagues, and reality sets in. An African-American singer, the public might accept. But not if she’s dating a white man.
The music in this show is as much of a star as any of the performers. There’s only one problem with it -- it makes it very hard to sit still. This is one show where it wouldn’t be a surprise if audience members started tapping their toes let alone started dancing in the aisles.
In fact, it’s tough not to envy the performers onstage who bop and rock through all of the great numbers. In "Memphis," love loses because of hate and racism.
There’s one thing not to envy though -- the state of the union during this period of American history. Huey falls in love with Felicia, the African-American singer who he helps to get discovered. Although they do manage to be a couple for a little while, it is short-lived and marked with violence, because so many people around them are so despicably racist.
What makes it so hard to watch is the parallel that is impossible to ignore. Just like interracial marriage so divided the country then, gay marriage is tearing us apart as a nation today. For what? And why?
Yes, you could say "Memphis" is just a musical. "Memphis" is just a story. Except it isn’t. "Memphis" is the telling of a societal truth that does not end, but only repeats.
Seeing it on-stage in full-color song and dance drives the point home quite pointedly. It’s love. There’s no stopping it, and only pain and violence results when you try. So why not live and let love?
It’s a pleasure to watch this story unfold in song with characters that it are easy to care about. It is so much harder to hate those whose stories we know. Once we see how much Huey and Felicia love each other, the hate that keeps them apart seems all the more ridiculous and tragic.
Julie Johnson, who played Huey’s mother, is a true standout in the show. She too is a product of the times, warning Huey of the danger of falling for this girl. But even she relents when she sees their love. It is hard not to see the importance of living authentically and openly, as it is often the only way to teach tolerance and, ultimately, acceptance.
I admire Dewey Phillips greatly. He heard great music and so he played it and shared it regardless of the color of the skin of the musicians. I admire the creators of "Memphis" for bringing this story to the stage. It may be a familiar tale. But it is nevertheless a necessary reminder of what too many people seem to be forgetting these days.
"At root, so much of this has to do with a belief that not only are we all in this together but all of us are equal in terms of dignity and in terms of respect, and everybody deserves a shot," President of the United States of America Barack Obama.
"Memphis" runs through May 27 at Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 First Avenue in Dallas. For info or tickets, call 214-565-1116 or visit http://dallassummermusicals.org/shows_memphis.shtm