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[Herald Review] 'Memphis' brings Korean audiences to 1950s Tennessee despite limitations

By Park Ga-young

Published : Aug. 4, 2023 - 15:19

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"Memphis" (Shownote)

The musical "Memphis" presents the story of the white disc jockey Huey Calhoun, who was one of the first in the 1950s to play music by Black artists, and how his love for rock 'n' roll became the catalyst for a groundbreaking chapter in the history of US music.

This story takes place in 1950s Memphis, Tennessee where the racial divide was pervasive everywhere, in the night clubs and restaurants, as well as in music and romantic relationships.

In its Broadway run from 2009 to 2012, the musical won four Tony Awards, including for best musical in 2010, as well as four Drama Desk Awards, including for outstanding musical and outstanding music.

The production also did a US national tour from 2011 to 2013, played on the West End in London from 2014 to 2015, and had local productions in Japan in 2015, Australia in 2017 and Germany in 2022.

As the show had mostly run in racially diverse countries, aside from Japan, it was intriguing to observe how the South Korean adaptation of "Memphis" would deal with the challenge of visually representing racial differences, given the limitations of color-conscious casting here to reflect specific racial backgrounds.

For the premier of the Korean production, the racial difference is depicted through variations in hair colors rather than skin color, and lines that subtly imply the racial differences. So the audience’s ability to accept that limit is important. It seems that the Korean audience is willing to be engrossed in the narrative. As of Aug. 4, Memphis was boasting an average rating of 9.9 out of 10 on the ticket platform Interpark.

What probably helps the most is its music, just as it brought people together across racial boundaries in the 1950s. The musical offers a combination of vibrant rock 'n' roll and soulful R&B, along with dynamic and energetic choreography that incorporates various styles spanning jazz, swing and elements of classic 1950s dance moves.

Posters for Posters for "Memphis" (Shownote)

The role of Huey Calhoun, which is based on the real-life disc jockey Dewey Phillips, is shared between Ko Eun-sung, Lee Chang-sub and Park Kang-hyun. Felicia Farrell, the Black singer whose voice captivate Huey’s ears and later his heart, is performed by Jeong Sun-ah, Yuria and Son Seung-yeon.

For the show on Thursday, there were a few seconds of a microphone disconnection incident when the character Gator was engrossing the audience, singing powerful gospel-inspire number "Say a Prayer" to close the first act.

Nonetheless, Ko perfectly portrayed the mischievous, eccentric and funny character, while Jeong showcased her exceptional singing abilities.

"Memphis" (Shownote)

"Memphis" is written by Joe DiPietro, an American playwright and lyricist, while David Bryan, an American musician and songwriter best known as the keyboard player of rock band Bon Jovi, composed the music.

"Memphis" runs until Oct. 22 at the Chungmu Art Center in Seoul.