A brief synopsis of this show’s plot is not very encouraging; set in the 1950s against the backdrop of racial tension in America’s still segregated Deep South, the story charts the emergence of Rock’n’Roll from black R&B/gospel music and the rags-to-riches rise of Felicia, a soul diva who may or may not bear a passing resemblance to Aretha Franklyn. Yes, it is the same formula that has given us a dozen or more shows in recent years, but with one very big difference – original songs (Hallelujah!) – which immediately sets it apart from all the lazy “juke box” musicals that simply recycle familiar old hits. As if that was not enough, the icing on the cake is that those original songs (music and lyrics David Bryan and Joe Dipietro) are just terrific. Dipietro’s fictional book does not shake off all the well-worn cliches and never throws up anything too challenging, seeming to realise that the best musicals are often the simplest ones. Similarly, Beverley Knight does not have to stretch herself to play Felicia – she is the real deal, almost literally raising the old Shaftesbury’s roof on several occasions. Killian Donnelly, so brilliant in The Commitments last year, is even better here, playing Huey, a pioneering young disc jockey who discovers the music and brings it to the ears of the white population, whilst becoming romantically attached to Felicia and enraging both black and white communities. Donnelly raises the euphoric first half to a higher level and, if he, like the entire production, is slightly less at ease in the more downbeat second, the continuing excellence of the songs carries the show through. Great performances too from Rolan Bell, Claire Machin and Jason Pennycooke amongst many in Christopher Ashley’s sparkling, vibrant production and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is eye-popping. This type of show has limitations, but, within them, Memphis is about as good as it gets.
Performance date: 21 January 2015