“LIKE A SAD OLD MELODY, TEARS YOU UP AND SETS YOU FREE, THAT’S HOW MEMPHIS SEEMS TO ME’
“Ain’t no daytime on Beale Street, only nighttime!’ Delroy’s joint is jumping, Felicia (a glorious Beverley Knight) belting it out at the microphone. Around them, dancers hurtle and dazzle. In walks Huey (Killian Donnelly), beautifully brash and geeky in a pork-pie hat. The dancing stops, Huey wonders why. “You notice anything different?” enquires Delroy sarcastically. Yep. Everyone else is this Memphis joint in 1951 is black. The only “White folks” who call are police requiring bribes.
And there, neat as you like, is the core and the point of this fabulous musical, fresh from Broadway and done with honour and huge heart by a British cast. Joe diPietro and composer David Bryan have imagined the moment in the early ‘50s when rock and roll was born, or “stolen”, for white kids to share and adapt the wealth of black r & b and gospel. Huey is a composite of several radio DJs who championed the music to the horror of white society: the story follows his passion for R& B – “the music of my soul!” and his star-crossed love for Felicia (in Tennessee “miscegenation” was still illegal). She, played with glorious vigour and pathos by Beverley Knight, is another composite of the early black divas. Huey gets his first radio job by literally breaking in to the studio, becomes a star, gets on TV, and perilously – ultimately disastrously – tangles with a social establishment which even “up North” in New York can’t accept mixing.
But oh, how the staid white folks of the ‘50s needed the new music! Some wonderful comic moments show tidily dressed shoppers and passers-by seduced by the energy, hips suddenly starting to wiggle free beneath tight repressed little suits (“Everybody wants to be black on a Saturday niiiight!”). Even Huey’s grumpy racist-Christian mother Gladys (Clare Machin, fresh from Pajama Game and hilarious as ever) undergoes a conversion, slyly assisted by their new financial prosperity. One visit to the gospel church she once shunned , and she is ready to “Testify!!”
There are individual great numbers, both high-energy and plaintive, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is breathtaking. But the joy of the show – kept moving with neat transitions by director Christopher Ashley – is in its belief that energy and music and youthful goodwill can win in the end, despite time and tears. There is comedy (racism is always absurd, as are radio studios, and Mark Roper’s Mr Simmons the WHBC boss is lovely). There are brief shocking brutalities. There is an immensely moving subplot involving Gator (Tyrone Huntley) whose father’s lynching left him mute from the age of five but who finds his voice at the crisis.
Altogether, the balance and line of the story work perfectly: on Broadway, I hear the end is more downbeat; here despite Huey’s professional downfall here the explosive joy is restored, if only in the music. Fair enough: “Say a prayer that change is a-coming” doesn’t imply that it’ll be quick.
And on a personal note, let me confirm that the stiff-backed sexual horror of “good white Christian folks” at music crossing the race border rings absolutely true. In my year in a South African convent in 1962, the nuns banned Elvis records because he sang and moved in a “black” way. Cliff Richard was allowed because he sang and moved in a “white” manner. True! So I danced out singing the last chorus “Listen to the beat, hear what’s in your soul, let it make you whole! Don’t let anyone steal your rock ’n roll!”. Even nuns.
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