Memphis star Bryan Fenkart reflects upon national tour, coming to Charlotte in January
Posted on 19 Dec 2011 by Michael J. Solender
Memphis – Tuesday, January 3rd through Sunday, January 8th
Ovens Auditorium. More information: http://www.blumenthalarts.org/?blumenthal=41
The scene is mid 1950’s Memphis, Tennesse. Recorded music, mostly 45s and 78s were sold in department stores along with their players. Huey Calhoun, a quirky department store sales clerk demonstrates a knack for picking just the right records that will sell to his mostly white middle class teenage female clientele.
There is only one problem at the time. The music is ‘race music,’ or music that was influenced and recorded predominately by African Americans — a taboo violated that gets Calhoun fired. His dismissal lands him at a 2nd tier radio station in town where serendipity plays a role in his rapid rise to celebrity in playing the very same race music across the regional airwaves. Along the way he falls for an African American blues/jazz singer who is equally smitten with him and he helps land her on the national stage.
Too much tension, too mercurial their rise to stardom, and too many people stand between them to allow for an all together happy ending. This is the story of Memphis.
The book is by Joe DiPietro ( I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) with Bon Jovi’s David Bryan providing the musical score and co-writing the lyrics with DiPietro.
Calhoun is a fictionalized character based upon the very real Dewy Phillips, Memphis DJ and radio personality of the same era. Bryan Fenkart brings the lead role of Huey to Charlotte in January. As an understudy that played Calhoun on Broadway for close to two hundred performances, Fenkhart is honored to originate the same role on the 1st national tour. His TV/Film appearances include: Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Red Hook, and You Tell Me. He is also a singer/songwriter, and his new album Simple & Grey has just been released.
I spoke with Fenkart by phone last week.
Certainly as a Broadway musical, this performance cannot be characterized as a “message” play, yet there very clearly is a very real message about race, relationships and prevailing attitudes. Have you ever faced similar issues that are experienced by your character and how do you draw upon those in your performance?
For the most part as a white Jersey kid from the suburbs I didn’t deal or have to confront many racial tensions growing up. Being in the theater subculture on and off Broadway I’ve seen more Gay vs. Straight issues than Black vs. White discrimination and prejudices. The bottom line is this: Art equals art. That is the message that resonates with me and our performers, we see talent in all variants and feel there should be acceptance of people for who they are and what they do regardless of race or orientation.
It is certainly somewhat of a surprise however, that even in 2011 there are some prevailing attitudes that are not accepting. There is a scene in the show where there is an interracial kiss between my character and Felicia. The cast was informed that on more than one occasion, in of all places Memphis, there were audience members that walked out of the show as a result of that scene.
Chemistry between romantic leads is one of the most difficult things to capture and spark in a Broadway performance such as this – How do you and Felicia Boswell manage to light that fire and keep it lit?
Well it helps a great deal that we like other, she is a terrific partner and a super professional to work with. We both recognize that a big part of our roles is making the love interest appear believable so we work at it, and finally, well you have seen Felicia, she is a very beautiful woman, it is not too difficult to kiss her!
Your character Huey is on stage for virtually every scene in the show and it is a very physical role with the varied song and dance numbers – how have you trained to be up for the demands?
Believe it or not all my cardio exercise comes from the show and rehearsals. I have to work at keeping the weight on, I am burning so many calories – It is crazy I can eat anything I want. Mostly I rest. Many of the cast are a bit younger and can see the tour as one long vacation going out a great deal, I hunker down and become a hermit resting in my hotel room. We do eight shows a week and that is pretty demanding.
You were an understudy/standby for Chad Kimball in the original Broadway run– what did he teach you about the role and how have you made it your own?
Chad is a great performer and a friend. He had some tough physical challenges during the Broadway run that had me as an understudy play a disproportionate number performances –it was actually 25% of the run – so I feel like I knew the character fairly well coming into the tour. I am perhaps a bit lower keyed and quirky than Chad in my portrayal of Huey – he is an unusual guy, though my performance is perhaps a bit more organic and a bit less frenetic. There are some things vocally that I’ve done to make the character my own as well.
What did you know of Dewy Phillips and 1950s radio before you began with the show – what surprising things have you learned since?
Really nothing before I started with the show. As part of our research though we had the opportunity to listen to actual recordings he made for Red, Hot and Blue radio show. He was courageous and stood up for what he believed in – a character element that Huey Calhoun embodies as well.