Soul, rock ‘n’ roll resonate in Tony award-winning “Memphis”

Geneseo Upstate Escapes offered a trip to the musical “Memphis” on Sunday Dec. 2. The show, which ran at the Rochester Auditorium Theatre from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2, won four Tony Awards in 2010 for its Broadway performance, including Best Musical, and for good reason.

The musical focuses on Huey Calhoun, one of the first disc jockeys to play African-American music on a white radio station in the 1950s. The story follows his unlikely journey to becoming a popular public figure and his romance with a singer, Felicia.

“Memphis” is, unsurprisingly, a musical that can make you laugh hard - Huey’s mother is very comedic - and cry harder. The Rochester Broadway Theatre League’s phenomenal dancers, singers, actors and technical designers made this show an incredible experience.

Costumes for the adult women in the show were elaborate, glitzy, racy and colorful with slits up to the women’s thighs making dances memorably risqué.

With low, colored lights in the club scenes, the colorful costumes gave a hallucinatory and mesmerizing effect. Huey had his own particular way of dressing that added to his eccentric nature, at one point wearing a velvet-textured green suit over a red shirt so that he looked, as his mother put it, like “Christmas throw-up.”

Felicia, played by understudy Lindsay Roberts at the Dec. 2 production, had the strongest voice of the cast. With emotional songs like “Colored Women,” “Someday” and “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails,” her vocals stole the show. Clear high notes and a deep, soulful lower register made Roberts a stunning singer.

There were no average singers in the cast, but Roberts and Julie Johnson as Huey’s mother Gladys were the standout singers of the night. Gladys’ feature song, “Change Don’t Come Easy,” was both humorous and poignant.

Set design for the show was incredible - smooth transitions from one elaborate set to another kept the show varied and interesting without blackout times becoming cumbersome. The use of a slideshow screen was not overwhelming since it was so infrequent, and added to the diversity of techniques used by the set designers in the show.

Choreography was active and visually exciting - dancers always kept moving, both their feet and hands. Much of the dancing was synchronized with one or two groups of actors all doing the same movements, intermixed.

Bryan Fenkart, who played Huey, is a phenomenal actor. He expertly portrayed the young, uncertain Huey’s transition into a larger-than-life, somewhat naïve and innocent TV and radio star. Idealistic and hopeful, Huey’s love for African-American rock music - the “music of his soul” - causes him to take large risks that ultimately bring him success but at a cost.

Huey, for all of his stupidity and egomania toward the end of the production, is a loving, kind-hearted man who really wishes the best for Felicia and other black singers and dancers. It’s this contradiction, the good that Huey wishes on others and the bad that befalls him, which truly tugs at the viewer’s heartstrings at the end of the show.