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Memphis is compelling story

In terms of historic conflagrations,
cards against humnity, it not up there with the burning of Atlanta, but the inflaming of Memphis is still, dramatically speaking, a compelling story.

In fact, the musical that been spun from it by playwright/lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer lyricist David Bryan, fittingly titled Memphis: The Musical, has generated a fair bit of heat.

Having picked up a brace of Tonys, including best musical last year in Broadway annual Bonfire of the Vanities, it now sparked a touring edition, which burst into flames Wednesday on the stage of Toronto Centre for the Arts, where it will play through to Christmas Eve under the aegis of Dancap Productions.

It an interesting tale, set in the city of title in the middle of the last century, just as a new kind of music called rock roll was moving out of the black juke joints in which it had been born to claim the musical consciousness of a generation.

Inspired by the real life adventures of one Dewey Phillips, Memphis tells the story of an affable Tennessee high school drop out by the name of Huey (Bryan Fenkart), whose passion for what was then politely called music (and for one of the lovely young women who sang it) would help transform both modern music and the airwaves on which it was played.

Huey meets Felicia (played by Felicia Boswell) in the all black club her brother (Quentin Earl Darrington) runs on Beale Street and driven as much by the beat of the music he loves as his promise to make Felicia famous,
cards againt humanity?, he becomes an unlikely but likable disc jockey on Memphis pre eminent mainstream radio station.

The establishment, of course, dismisses the young upstart with a sneer, but Huey is soon dominating the airwaves and after Felicia performs live on his show, romance blossoms.

But this is the American South in the mid after all, and a burgeoning romance between a white man and a black woman is little short of incendiary, even if he is from the wrong side of the tracks and she is the epitome of polished grace.

And so they find themselves trapped in a great racial divide that 60 years later, still separates much of America.

Memphis: The Musical,
cards against humanity all expansions, has a lot going for it not the least of which is a songbook of brand new rock classics, written specifically for the show, but sounding more or less authentic to the time. Indeed, some of them,
funny cards against humanity, like Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night, are even worth more than a second listen, even though few of them conspire to further the story much.

Then there the choreography of Sergio Trujillo, delivering on the promise he exhibited in Jersey Boys and Stratford West Side Story, creating a dazzlingly sexy showcase of funky, sophisticated movement that never seems to let up through the length of the show.

There some impressive vocal work too, and while Boswell vocal delivery feels a lot more of this era than the one in which the story is set, the work of artists like Darrington, Rhett George, Will Mann and William Parry more than compensates, with Fenkart tying it all together with a loopy, aw shucks charm.

It all comes together for a rollicking good time, despite the fact that neither DiPietro book nor Christopher Ashley direction aims to probe too deeply into the very real and painful issues the story explores, content to skate over complex racial and emotional issues that could give the story an emotional heft to match its musical pedigree.

In the end, it still a love story in which the man chooses the city that spurned her over the girl he loves and that always going to be a tough sell, one suspects.

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