Memphis October 2014
NOTE: CAST HAS CHANGED SINCE THIS REVIEW
Our latest review of this show by Mark Shenton on 27 July 2015 can be found Here
Just because something looks like a jukebox musical and sounds like one doesn't mean it is one, even if the title itself suggests it might be.
Right now there's a Broadway show Motown that pays tribute to that legendary record label by performing some its greatest hits back-to-back, while Jersey Boys (both on Broadway and in the West End) repackages the hits of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to tell a story of the band's own life story.
So you might be forgiven for expecting Memphis to simply recycle some of the hits of the artists that came out of that Tennessee city like Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and where such sounds as Memphis soul and Memphis blues were patented.
But Memphis does something bolder and more original: it employs a brand-new music by David Bryan (best known as Bon Jovi's keyboard player), set to lyrics by himself and Joe DiPietro, that tell an original story set in 60s Memphis at a time of emerging racial integration, as white kids start embracing 'coloured' music.
That was also coincidentally the background for Hairspray, and it makes for another pop musical with a social conscience, as a young white Memphis radio DJ called Huey sets about challenging and changing the playlist of a local station and swapping Perry Como for more edgier stuff. He also falls in love with a black singer Felicia, whom he hears in a club one night, and starts promoting her professional career as well.
It's not quite as funny or heartbreaking as Hairspray, but it is staged with a similar punch and captivating attack, thanks particularly to stunning turns from Killian Donnelly as the DJ and Beverley Knight as the singer.
Knight, trailing a blaze of her former pop glory, is fast emerging as a new leading lady of musical theatre, after her previous magnificent take-over of The Bodyguard. You can't take your eyes off her - and she's onstage for most of the time. And Donnelly is a striking new leading man, too, consolidating his achievement of leading the original cast of The Commitments to make something affecting of this loner.
The show may at times feel a little formulaic, but it is staged with brio by director Christopher Ashley, and galvanized by terrific choreography by Sergio Trujillo that's both energetic and thrilling.
"We all know that Beverley Knight, who plays Felicia, is one of the best soul singers around, and she duly combines charisma and power. But, as I’ve never seen The Commitments stage show, the Irish-born Killian Donnelly is new to me and something of a revelation."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, who between them have produced book, lyrics and score, adopt different genres – gospel, blues rock, ballads, even girl-group pop – as it suits. Even though not instantly memorable, the songs pass period-faithful muster."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Beverley Knight is sensational in this dynamic musical. She’s soulful, poised and often thrilling in an entirely recast version of a show that despite cartoonish elements proved a hit on Broadway and won four Tony awards."
Henry Hitchings for the Evening Standard