The Tony award winning Memphis The Musical has opened in London’s West End and, judging by the rapturous applause at the Shaftesbury Theatre, the West End is thrilled to have it.
Set in 1950s Memphis, Tennessee and loosely based on true events, Memphis The Musical centres on the dorky but lovable Huey (Killian Donnelly) and beautiful nightclub singer Felicia (Beverley Knight). The pair meet and eventually fall for each other when Huey interrupts an evening at Delray’s, an underground all-black dance club owned by Felicia’s brother, the imposing Delray (Rolan Bell). Recognising Felicia’s talent, Huey vows to get her played on the radio and make her a star which is no mean feat due to him having zero contacts in the radio business and her being black in a pre-civil rights era.
But Huey is the tenacious type and he charms his way into a job as a radio DJ, becoming the first to controversially play black music and it attracts both adoring fans and bigoted enemies. When he and Felicia begin their relationship it is Huey who instigates things, she’s more cautious, understanding that their neighbours may not yet be as enlightened and forward thinking as they are.
The book by Joe DiPietro has a serious tale to tell but is more concerned with delighting the audience with its energy and exuberance than hammering its message home. That’s not to say that it’s all froth, by interval if most of the audience aren’t concerned for the welfare of our two leads and aren’t having a bit of a sneaky sniffle before the lights come on then they haven’t been paying attention.
Which brings us neatly to the songs written by Bon Jovi’s Dave Bryan along with DiPietro. Simply put, they’re toe-tappingly joyous. Reflecting the pioneering rhythm and blues of the time, Bryan knows how to get bottoms shifting in their seats and the talented cast know how to belt them out with aplomb.
Donnelly proves to be excellent company; his infectiously enthusiastic, anarchic Huey is a charmer. He’s flawed and pig-headed in many ways but Donnelly makes him easy to love. Knight is one big shining star with an enviable set of pipes on her and she manages to find the fun in Felicia, a character who could’ve come across as a bit of a downer.
Able support comes from Bell as the over protective Delray and Claire Machin as Huey’s disapproving mother Gladys. Jason Pennycooke and Mark Roper bring the giggles and Tyron Huntley as the mute barman Gator brings a sweet pathos to proceedings.
Add gorgeous costumes, imaginative production design and infectious choreography and it’s hard to find much fault in this well-meaning, beautifully crafted production. Warm, funny and with memorable original songs, Memphis The Musical is quite simply a triumph.