In a small flurry of transatlantic transfers – hot on the heels of Here Lies Love and The Scottsboro Boys – Tony-award winning Memphis the Musical is the latest show to test whether the West End is capable of recreating a Broadway powerhouse. Any doubts are quickly blown away with the help of a fantastic on-stage orchestra, high energy choreography and leads with two of the biggest voices on the London stage.
Fresh from a successful run in The Bodyguard, Beverley Knight shines as Felicia, somehow topping each belter with the next: her soulful tones suit the bluesy, rock ‘n’ roll score perfectly. As Huey, Killian Donnelly offers the same rebellious streak as in his turn as Deco in The Commitments, but with infinitely more charm; once again his vocals are just astoundingly good, filled with power, passion and personality. He is one of the most natural performers around on the London stage, not just acting but diving into his character and instantly drawing your eye around the stage. These two are no doubt the stars, but supporting cast members are by no means spare parts as Jason Pennycooke (Bobby), Tyrone Huntley (Gator) and Claire Machin (Gladys) all get their moments of glory with scene-stealing numbers.
Sergio Trujillo’s electrifying choreography continues to drive the show forward throughout, and the dancing is as tight and energetic as any you’ll see in the West End, with the energy of the ensemble never dropping once. Space is used well to create pulsating, high energy routines that seem to fill the whole theatre. It’s infectious, pulling you into its world of 1950s Memphis and the rhythms of Beale Street. Meanwhile David Bryan’s original score contains many a catchy tune, with captivating melodies that stick in your head, not just provide a vehicle for vocal acrobatics from Knight and Donnelly.
While the show shares some of its themes with Hairspray (segregation, interracial relationships and TV shows that decide to break all the rules), it aims to explore this period of history a little more realistically to depict the genuine dangers of the time. While it can’t avoid a little fluffiness – the ‘let’s sing a song and it’ll all be ok’ formula is rolled out more than once – it does put these elements at the heart of the love story, rather than tagging them on as ‘issues’ on the side. And let’s be honest, musicals have been living off the mantra that a song solves everything for years, so it’s hard to begrudge them that; moreover, this cast carry everything off with fire and aplomb that’s simply irresistible.
Set changes are impressively fluid, and at two and a half hours the show flies by. Although the ending itself is a little anticlimactic plot-wise, there’s no denying the joyous atmosphere that pervades the auditorium. The groove and spirit of the piece gets under your skin and it’s best to just let yourself get carried away in its rhythm.
Memphis has announced its arrival in the West End boldly, and you’d be wise not to ignore it – with comedy, romance and, most of all, electrifying score and choreography, it has all the ingredients of a hit. A barnstorming piece of theatre that showcases powerhouse vocals and pure soul, Memphis is a fantastic, and hopefully long-lasting, addition to the West End.
Memphis the Musical is playing at the Shaftesbury Theatre and is currently booking until 28 March 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Memphis the Musical website.
Photo by Johan Persson.