Crowd-pleasing “Memphis” delights in Durham

Reviewed by Lincoln Pennington
Times-News correspondent

 DURHAM — While President Obama delivered his State of the Union address Tuesday night, theatergoers at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) were reminded of the struggle it took for an African-American president to even be a possibility. Winner of four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, “Memphis” follows a white DJ, Huey Calhoun, as he tries to give black music a major presence on the radio waves in 1950’s Tennessee.

Delray, played by Kent Overshown, takes the stage to set the mood and scene for the show by describing the black nightlife in “Underground.” Bryan Fenkart soon enters, though, as the endearing fool, Huey, revealing that black music is “The Music of My Soul.” Huey quickly falls for Felicia (Felicia Boswell), an African-American girl who wants a to become a professional singer. The rest of the show then follows the story of the two as they try to make careers for themselves and keep their relationship a secret.

Boswell and Fenkart make the unlikely couple seem like a no-brainer. Boswell’s powerhouse voice and strong-willed personality contrast well with her petite form as she brings Felicia to life. The strength of Boswell’s Felicia matches up perfectly with Fenkart’s goofiness. Fenkart nails the role of Huey as a blundering fool with his deep drawl and spunky personality. While the love story may not be the center of the story, the pair feed off each other’s energy to create an engaging arc through and through.

Julie Johnson steals the show, though, with her portrayal of Huey’s mother, Gladys. Johnson manages to believably play every facet of her character with ease. While she loves her son, she disapproves of his relationship with Felicia, an internal conflict that Johnson nails. Johnson’s comic timing makes her a standout performer, though. Coming to accept the relationship, she attempts (and succeeds) in delivering a show-stopping gospel number, “Change Don’t Come Easy.”

While the plot is at times formulaic, the strength of the performers and design team keep the show both engaging and exciting. The ensemble in “Memphis” finds success in its ability to truly bring the period to life. The ensembles strength is then amplified by the creative team’s designs. The costumes and sets bring vividness to the piece without stealing focus from the actors, rather they allow the performers to better embody the characters they are portraying.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the show, though, is found in the choreography, which has been polished to the point that it, in fact, looks more natural and spontaneous. The choreography still allows plenty of room for each actor to add their own flair, enhancing the show’s overall portrayal of the era.

Surprisingly, two white guys from Jersey (writers Joe DiPietro and David Bryan) found a way to put the soul of African-Americans in 1950’s Memphis onstage. By combining Gospel, rhythm and blues and rock, “Memphis” creates a multi-faceted, crowd-pleasing experience, while preserving a level of authenticity that is not often seen onstage today.

“Memphis” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Jan. 27 and 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. Jan. 28 and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 29, 2012, at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), The American Tobacco District, 123 Vivian St., Durham. Visit for more details.

 Lincoln Pennington is a senior at The Elon School and a Teens & Twenties writer. “Like” us on Facebook at and follow us on Twitter at @TeensAnd20s.



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