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5 Star Review of Memphis The Musical London West End

Killian Donnelly and Beverley Knight in Memphis The Musical
Beverly Knight and Killian Donnelly in Memphis The Musical
Photo credit Matt Crockett

There are two reviews of Memphis the Musical at the Shaftsbury Theatre available here to the discerning reader. First, the very concise version:

It’s awesome! Get your tickets now!

And now the longer one:
Can music and a true belief in what is right solve life’s problems? In an underground nightclub in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1950s it doesn’t feel like it. The music is hot, amazingly hot, but segregation is the norm and race is a major issue for everyone. The club is owned and managed by Delray Farrell (Rolan Bell) whose main aims in life seem to be; to survive, promote the singing career of his sister, Felicia (Beverley Knight) and simultaneously protect her from men. Delray’s club is on Beale Street and is ‘blacks only’, until the day a white boy hears the sounds and wanders in. Huey Calhoun (Killian Donnelly) is by any standards not your average musical hero. He’s a not very bright high school drop-out without the redeeming good looks or hot body usually associated with musical theatre. However, Huey does have a pure heart, a love of music and a vision that the world is ready for a revolution. What follows is a mixture of ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ coupled with a touch of ’Romeo and Juliet’ and possibly a little ‘Hairspray’ thrown into the mix, as Huey, by sheer hard sell gets a spot on a local radio station, throws convention out of the window with his musical choices and presenting style, and then falls in love with Felicia.

Now let’s be honest, romances in musicals are pretty much doomed to not run smoothly and, as this is a romance between a white boy and a black woman in a southern city when segregation is in full swing, it is fairly obvious that trouble is just around the corner for the two lovebirds.

The show opens with the huge number ‘Underground’, and this sets the standard for the rest of the songs, 21 in all, consisting of solos, duets, small groups and massive ensemble pieces in a variety of styles – Gospel, Rhythm ‘n’ Blues, Rock-‘n’-Roll, etc. Beverley Knight revels in playing the fragile yet ultimately tough Felicia. Along with her undoubted acting skills, her truly amazing singing voice and vocal range are there for all to hear and fall in love with.

But, this is not just a vehicle for Beverley, as all of the cast can really sing, dance and act. Killian is no stranger to the West End and puts his heart and soul into Huey, using his superb voice and stage presence to breathe personality and charm into the awkward, geeky and in many ways very naïve character. This is marvellously demonstrated in Huey’s emotionally charged duet with Delray ‘She’s My Sister’ where both men try to convince the other that they know what is best and will always be there for Felicia. But apart from the leads, some of the best songs are delivered by more ‘minor’ parts, for example Huey’s God-fearing, Christian but racist Mama (superbly played by Claire Machin) has a fabulous song in Act II, ‘Change Don’t Come Easy’, and Bobby the floor sweeper (Jason Pennycooke) really dominates the stage with ‘Big Love’.

The set is brilliantly designed and moves effortlessly through the many scene changes from the seedy underground nightclub, to a brightly lit television studio. I especially loved the through the floor radio station. Christopher Ashley’s direction is superb and David Bryan, Music and Co-Lyrics and Joe Dipietro’s Book and Co-Lyrics are just amazing. All in all this is a really superb show with everything right. There was real contact with the audience all the way through, as evidenced by the reaction to the very surprising and emotional end of Act I. And that momentum was carried forward into the shorter but no less involved second act.

The exuberance and enthusiasm of the cast clearly loving their roles spread throughout the theatre right through to the end. I’m not one for standing ovations – very American to my mind – but I was up out of my seat with everyone around me when the cast took their bows.

Not much more to say. This is a fantastic show and if you like Rhythm ‘n’ Blues then this has to be your ‘must see’ show of the year. So, in the words of the great Huey Calhoun “Goodnight and Hockadoo!

5 Star Rating

 

Review by Terry Eastham

Memphis The Musical
In the underground nightclubs of 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, the soul of a new era is dawning as the first incredible sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, blues and gospel are emerging into the mainstream.

Falling in love with a beautiful club singer, one young man’s vision to bring her voice and her music out of the clubs and onto the airwaves of America will fly in the face of cultural divides and spark a music revolution that will shake the world.

CAST: Beverley Knight as Felicia, Killian Donnelly as Huey, Rolan Bell as Delray, Claire Machin as Gladys, Jason Pennycooke as Bobby, Mark Roper as Mr. Simmons, Tyrone Huntley as Gator, Rachel John as Alternate Felicia, Jon Robyns as Alternate Huey.

ENSEMBLE: Keisha Atwell, Arielle Campbell, Mark Carroll, Joseph Davenport, Momar Diagne, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Kimmy Edwards, Hillary Elk, Laura Ellis, 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.

CREATIVE
David Bryan – Music and Co-Lyrics, Joe Dipietro – Book and Co-Lyrics, Christopher Ashley – Director, Sergio Trujillo – Choreographer, Christopher Jahnke – Music Producer/Music Supervisor, David Gallo – Set Design, Paul Tazewell – Costume Design, Howell Binkley – Lighting Design, Gareth Owen – Sound Design, Daryl Waters – Co-Orchestrator, Shawn Sagady – Co-Projections Design, Charles G Lapointe – Hair And Wig Designer, Nick Finlow – UK Musical Supervisor, Tim Sutton – Musical Director, August Eriksmoen – Dance Arrangements, Steve Rankin – Fight Director, Pippa Ailion CDG – Casting Director, Stage Entertainment – General Management, Joe Public – Marketing Directors, Tara Wilkinson uk – Associate Director, Edgar Godineaux – Associate Choreographer, Andrew D Edwards – UK Associate Set Designer, John Harrisuk – Associate Lighting Designer, Rory Powers – Associate Costume Designer, Hannah Bell – Costume Supervisor, Marcus Hall Props – Props Supervisor, Linda Mcknight – Wigs Supervisor, Andy Barnwell – Orchestral Manager, Gabriel Greene – Dramaturgist.

Memphis The Musical
Shaftesbury Theatre London
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 11+

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