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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Memphis
Shaftsbury Theatre  Autumn 2014 - Autumn 2015

Memphis is a big brassy tune-full dance-full showstopper-full Broadway musical of the sort they supposedly don't do anymore, and a thorough delight. 

If it isn't especially original, I doubt if anyone will be particularly bothered, as it delivers what it promises, the proverbial Good Night Out.

Joe DiPietro's book has the feel of a low-budget 1950s rock'n'roll movie – nerdy white guy discovers the joys of black rhythm-and-blues, wangles himself a job as a radio DJ and plays the stuff to the delight of white teenagers, and rock'n'roll is born. 

Of course, this being Tennessee in the 1950s, those white kids' parents aren't pleased, and the DJ's romance with a black singer doesn't have much of a future. 

From our historical perspective, both racial and musical, there can be no doubt who the good guys and bad guys are, and Memphis is one continual celebration of the triumphs of the new music, leavened only by concern for the romantic couple at the centre. 

(You might have spotted a resemblance to Hairspray, another musical that took on America's racial problems through rock'n'roll. There are other echoes of the earlier show, including a big finale number that serves the same function as, and has a melody perilously close to 'You Can't Stop The Beat'.) 

Memphis's songs (music by David Bryan, lyrics by Bryan and DiPietro) are about equally divided between 'book songs' in the dramatic context of the action and performances by the girl singer and others, and range from gospel through rock to Broadway pop, scoring effectively in every genre. (The only grumpy criticism you might make is that they are too good – early rock'n'roll was never this polished and sophisticated in melody or lyrics.) 

There can be no surprise that Beverley Knight can can pull every ounce of pure soul and emotional power from a song, and every one of her numbers is thrilling, her take-no-prisoners 'Colored Woman' deservedly stopping the show. 

The big revelation is Killian Donnelly, most recently seen in The Commitments. A dynamo of non-stop energy, he sings, dances and acts up a storm, driving the show forward with the sheer force of his talent and personality. 

There is strong support from Rolan Bell as the girl's first-disapproving-but-won-over brother, Claire Machin as the boy's first-disapproving-but-won-over mother, Jason Pennycooke, Mark Roper and Tyrone Huntley. Each one of them is given a strong moment, and only the proliferation of first-rate songs and performances keeps every one of them from being a show-stopper. 

But the real co-stars of the show are director Christopher Ashley, choreographer Sergio Trujillo and the singing and dancing chorus, reminding us of how very very high the standard of musical 'gypsies' can be.

If for no other reason Memphis should be celebrated for the return of the old-fashioned Broadway production number, with the story repeatedly and thrillingly punctuated by a stageful of dancers in inventive, colourful and exciting action.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Memphis - Shaftsbury Theatre 2014

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