by dorothy cascerceri photography by joan marcus| January 17, 2012 |
Two decades ago, Broadway director Christopher Ashley got his first taste of Philadelphia (literally) when he directed plays at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. “I did a lot of cheesesteak eating,” he says with a laugh. “I’m not proud of it, but I think I went to 40 different cheesesteak places.”
Now Ashley is returning to Philadelphia to take another bite out of the theater scene with the national tour of the Broadway musical Memphis. The show, which won four Tony Awards in 2010, including Best Musical, is loosely based on a true story about 1950s DJ Dewey Phillips. Set in Memphis, Tennessee, the play traces the struggle and triumph of white DJ Huey Calhoun in his quest to get the angelic voice of underground black singer Felicia Farrell aired on the radio. Calhoun sparks even more controversy when he falls in love with Farrell. “Huey is an extraordinary character,” says Ashley. “His bullheaded single-mindedness really changed the face of what music is like in America. The elements of music and race work together to tell the story, and the way the music changes is very intertwined with the changing rules about race.” Bryan Fenkart, who was born in Langhorne, was tapped to play Huey for the tour after serving as the character’s understudy for two years on Broadway, a role he says is an honor to portray. “I think it is an inspiring story for anybody who has that spark in the back of their mind that maybe they could make a difference in the world,” he says.
The female lead, Felicia Boswell, showcases her powerful voice as Farrell, and the Alabama native says she shares more similarities with her character than just their names. “Her story is very parallel to my life, being from the South and wanting to record songs and dating outside of my race,” she says. In fact, the gorgeous performer, who appeared at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in June 2010 as part of the Dreamgirls tour, has a direct link to a pioneer in the civil rights movement. “Rosa Parks and my grandmother were second cousins,” she says. “I remember when she would come into town and stay at my grandmother’s house. I knew she was great, but I had no idea how great she was.” In addition to the story behind Memphis, the music, especially the finale, “Steal Your Rock ’n’ Roll,” is powerful in its own right. Composed by Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, the soundtrack is initially what drew Ashley to work on Memphis a decade ago. “The show has an amazing score that really captures the early days of rock ’n’ roll and the influences of R&B, from early Motown and from gospel,” he says. “But it has a very contemporary feeling to it.”
While Ashley hopes to avoid overindulging on cheesesteaks while in Philadelphia, Fenkart, who grew up in North Jersey, hopes to steer clear of the sports fans. “They can be intense,” he says with a smile, “They are the most passionate and aggressive fans you will ever come across.” Memphis runs from January 17 to 22 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St., 215-893-1999; kimmelcenter.org.