As a West Side Story-Sound of Music-Les Miserables kinda gal, it takes a lot for me to like new musicals. I never expect anything new to compare with the classics. With this in mind, I expected to be underwhelmed by new show Memphis, which opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre this week.
I was wrong.
This show is joyous. It tells the story of Huey Calhoun (Killian Donnelly) – a white boy from Tennessee – who makes it his mission to get the ‘race music’, rock and roll, blues and gospel only heard in underground clubs frequented by black people, brought to a white audience.
Amid the dark story of the racism and segregation of 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, is a love story between Calhoun and beautiful club singer Felicia, played by British soul singer Beverley Knight. Knight is an under-rated star of British music – her voice throughout the show exquisite and almost unbelievable in the clarity of her tone and the ease of her delivery.
She’s not the only one who can sing, though. Despite his jester-style role as the male lead, Donnelly’s voice is also strong. But the leading pair are backed by a cast of outstanding singers who raise the roof with the stunning harmonies of blues and gospel. As each song came to a climactic end, the stars were met with rapturous rounds of applause. Personally, it was heartening to see a West End show of such high quality in which the predominant number of parts were played by black actors, who are so under-represented in theatre.
Smiles of surprise seemed to be on the faces of the audience members during the interval.
But maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised. Because Memphis has already proved a smash hit on Broadway with a triumphant 55-city North American tour and won multiple awards across the pond, including winning a Tony Award for best musical.
With songs by Grammy winner and Bon Jovi co-founder David Bryan and a true-life inspired story from writer Joe DiPietro, Memphis will leave you with a hope-filled smile on your face despite the sadness of the stories of racial separation.
Whenever I read books or see films or shows that tell the story of historical racial segregation in North America, I’m left thankful for the people who stepped outside their comfort zones and risked being ostracised from their own communities for the sake of tearing down injustice. But I’m also always reminded that the struggle isn’t over yet. The fear of people who are in some way ‘unknown’ is what fuels hatred and separation. There are so many communities even where we live who feel isolated and rejected by the rest of society. It’s our job to find them, welcome them and love them – even if they are not like us.
Photo by Johan Persson