It's been five years since the musical Memphis completed its far too short run in the West end. The show carries an important message, which in light of recent events feels like a fitting time to revisit.
Written by Joe DiPetrio and Bon Jovi's David Bryan, Memphis debuted on Broadway in 2009 and followed in the UK in 2014. The musical is loosely based on the story of Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips who was one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s. Dewey becomes Huey in this story, who falls in love with singer Felicia Farrell. The story is played out as racial tensions mount throughout the show.
Beverley Knight starred in the West end production as Felicia, and came hot on the heels of her West end debut in The Bodyguard. This role really tested out her acting chops and she more than delivered. With a story close to her heart, Beverley used every bit of emotion she had available to tell the story with the sensitivity and authenticity it deserved. This comes to a head with her biggest number in the show - the incredibly powerful 'Colored Woman'
The Huey to Beverley Knight's Felicia was played in the West end originally by Killian Donnelly and later Matt Cardle. If you have ever seen Killian in any role, such as Kinky Boots or Les Miserables, you'll know what a talent he is. The chemistry Killian and Beverley had made the show even more special and had you believing their relationship and rooting for them. Killian's standout number comes towards the end of the show in 'Memphis Lives In Me' - a number that will always give me goosebumps, no matter how many times I hear it.
Memphis featured a cast of some of the best the West end has to offer. Tyrone Huntley had a scene stealing moment with his portayal of Gator, Rolan Bell as Felicia's brother Delray took you on a conflicted journey with his character while Jason Pennycooke, who is now in Hamilton, was a massive standout as Bobby.
What makes this show so special though is the story. The themes of racism in America are sadly still ever present in society even though nearly 70 years have passed. This was the first show I watched which had racism as a major theme and it completely broke me. Act one ends with such a gut punch (literally) that on all my repeat visits to the show, I could never even speak during the interval, I was moved so much. In the years since, no other show has had such a major effect on me.
The themes in the story are why I am revisiting the show today. When I first saw this in 2014, it really hit home how rife was in America in the decades before I was born. But the horrific events of recent weeks have woken me up to my own ignorance and really hit home how rife it still is to this day. In the show, Huey starts in 'The music of my soul' by talking about how his father warned him against black people and he couldn't understand why. He uses his platform throughout the show to attempt to change peoples attitudes, including his own racist mother, Gladys. It comes to a head in Act 2 number 'Change don't come easy' where Gladys comes round to his more tolerant ways of thinking.
The songs in this show were one of the reasons this show was so strong. As well as the standouts mentioned above, other highlights include early number 'The Music Of My Soul' which sets the themes up for the show perfectly, 'Love will stand when all else falls' which is now a mainstay in Beverley Knight's live shows, and the closing number 'Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll'.
Like Hairspray, the show ends with a more tolerant and less racist society than at the start. The world may not have caught up just yet but we can all hope that the growing #BlackLivesMatter movement and protests against the world will lead to the belated change this world so desperately needs. Tyrone Huntley says it best in act 1 closing number with the line "Say a prayer that change is a comin"
Few shows hit me straight in the heart with such force like Memphis did. It was a special show when it opened in London, it was special when it closed a year later, and in the five years since, it remains incredibly special and important. This is a show that I'd love to see return either for a new West end run or a UK tour.
If you haven't seen it before, the filmed Broadway version is available to watch on broadwayHD.com. I really can't recommend this show enough. The story, songs and staging are all so flawless and put this show firmly as one of my top 5 all time favourites. For a show that puts you through it when it comes to emotions, it ends on a high with the upbeat 'Steal your rock 'n' roll' ensuring that while you come out of there emotionally exhausted and with serious topics on your mind, you can still thankfully leave with a smile on your face.
Did you see Memphis either in the theatre or online and were you as moved by it as I was?