It took Hairspray, the 2003 Tony winner for best musical, five years to reach London and now Memphis, the 2010 winner, has taken the same amount of time to transfer here since it first opened on Broadway in September 2009. And they’ve both made their home at the Shaftesbury, arguably London’s unluckiest musical house, but whose fortunes Hairspray happily turned around. Memphis should prove to be another lucky charm for the theatre, especially since it’s about a similar transition period in US 1960s culture when white kids started embracing ‘coloured’ music.
That gives it plenty of musical colour in other senses, too. That’s accomplished through a story that revolves around the music world as a young white Memphis radio DJ actively promotes black music, and in particular a singer Felicia whom he hears in a club one night. The music is therefore an integral part of the show’s narrative journey, and makes it play like a newly minted Jersey Boys.
Though it may lack the overall wit and heart of Hairspray, it has a similar verve and panache. And just as Hairspray was gloriously propelled by its lead performers Michael Ball and the then newly discovered Leanne Jones, both of whom went on to win Olivier awards, so Memphis is stunningly led by the big-voiced Beverley Knight Felicia and Killian Donnelly Huey, whose romance ignites across the race divide.
Knight, in particular, brings a scorching vocal vivacity to the proceedings and, just as she did when she took over in The Bodyguard, has a burning acting intensity and sincerity to match. When she’s onstage, it’s difficult to look anywhere else. And she’s onstage most of the time. Donnelly, fresh from leading the original cast of The Commitments, captures the jaunty yet haunted character of the loner DJ perfectly.
While the show feels like a jukebox show that might, like the current Broadway hit Motown, celebrate a particular genre of music that hails from fabled recording studios, the key to its success is actually that it dares to be an original. Composer David Bryan conjures some rousing numbers that feel perfectly in period, but are more than mere pastiches. And Joe DiPietro, the show’s book writer and Bryan’s co-lyricist, wraps the songs smartly into a slightly formulaic story that is properly involving.
Best of all is the punchy choreography of Sergio Trujillo, who makes the movement both organic and flashy at the same time. It is executed with quite dazzling skill by a brilliant West End ensemble.
- Shaftesbury Theatre, London
- October 9-March 28, PN: October 23
- Authors: Joe DiPietro book, lyrics, David Bryan music, lyrics, George W George original concept
- Director: Christopher Ashley
- Design: David Gallo sets, Paul Tazewell costumes, Howell Binkley lighting, Gareth Owen sound, David Gallo, Shaw Sugary projection design, Charles G LaPointe hair/wigs
- Musical director: Tim Sutton
- Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo
- Technical: Rich Blacksell production manager, Steven Burnett company stage manager, Alex Surridge head of wardrobe, Katie Marson head of wigs, Stage Entertainment general management
- Cast includes: Beverley Knight, Killian Donnelly, Rolan Bell, Tyrone Huntley, Claire Machin, Jason Pennycooke, Mark Roper
- Producers: Junkyard Dog Productions, Marleen and Kenny Alhadeff, Barbara K Freitag, Joseph Smith, John Brant, 2 Guys Productions, Demos Bizar Entertainment, Latitude Link, Peter Kane
- Running time: 2hrs 30mins