Q&A with “Memphis” stars Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart

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Balance is a crucial part of how Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart approach their lead roles in the touring production of the Broadway musical “Memphis.” The show penned by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan is all about juggling different themes and musical styles. Set in 1950s Memphis, the show tackles questions of race and bigotry, even as it revels in lighthearted show tunes and constant humor. For Boswell and Fenkart, who play the lead roles of Huey and Felicia, that mix of elements has affected their performances during their past year of touring. The duo gives life to an unlikely love story, one rooted in the bigotry, violence and culture of the American South in the 1950s. The Aurora Sentinel caught up with the actors the day after their Denver debut to talk about the juggling act in the story, the music and the approach to the drama.

Aurora Sentinel: How did you come to your roles in the touring production of  ‘Memphis’?

Bryan Fenkhart: I auditioned for the understudy role on Broadway, which I did for two years. I became a standby during that time. I got a call from Chris Ashley asking if I wanted to head the tour, and I said yes. That’s been going on for a year now.

Felicia Boswell: I auditioned for a vacation swing cover role. It was an understudy for the lead, because the understudy was on vacation. I went in and auditioned for her role. It was supposed to be a temporary fix — they were going to use me two or three times. I had actually signed a contract to play Nala in ‘The Lion King,’ and I was in an understudy rehearsal. The director came in and saw me, he just happened to stop into the theater. He said, ‘I want to see that girl in an audition. Tomorrow.’

It was being the first Felicia in the first national tour of ‘Memphis’ or being the fortieth Nala. (laughs).

You’re both on stage so much in this production and the score is so demanding for both of you. Did your roles as understudies help prepare you for the considerable demands of these lead roles?

FB: We had an outline. Bryan had been in the show for years, so he brought so much more to the show. He knows history that I don’t even know. It was nice to be able to be a part of the company for a short while on Broadway and be with some of the original players, the people who created these roles. I had a little more knowledge than someone just joining the project.

BF: As far as an understudy role goes, I couldn’t have had a sweeter gig. I went on 198 times as the understudy, which is pretty rare. I had the opportunity to head the Broadway production that many times, which is a huge blessing. I did it a lot.

FB: He was the first Huey I saw. I was sitting in the front row and I remember thinking, ‘Gosh this guy is amazing. I would love to be in this show and be his Felicia.’

This show mixes old and new musical styles. How did you balance the musical contours of R&B from the 1950s and 60s with a modern, Broadway sensibility?

FB: I knew a very long time ago that it was necessary to tell the story of the song without painting it without all of these unnecessary colors.

About seven or eight years ago, I had the opportunity to spend seven days with Whitney Houston. We were talking about how you tell a story through song. She said you always have to remind your listeners of home. She started to sing, and she did something simple and said ‘Home.’ … In songs like “Colored Woman” or “Memphis Lives in Me,” we pull back for the sake of telling the story.

BF: What I love about the way that Felicia approaches the music in this is that I’ve heard her sing, she’s capable of doing very modern, pop runs that she holds back on and restrains for the sake of the show … She incorporates her own take on the music, which is important. She also holds back some amazing things that she could do, because that’s not what was going on back then. That’s not the style of the show. She’s managed to find a great balance … Restraint can be an incredibly powerful emotional tool.

This show tackles serious questions of racism and bigotry in a unique way. How do you approach the different elements of humor, music and serious social commentary that are all embedded in this show?

BF: I think that it treads lightly where it needs to and it also doesn’t shy away from hitting hard when it needs to. It has a great balance of being incredibly entertaining and uplifting and fun, but it also doesn’t shy away from how dangerous the time was … There are personal things for me. The wanting to change things that I find ridiculous. The whole gay marriage debate for me … there are so many bigger problems. Stop wasting time and money and get out of the way. I connect deeply to that. I want to see people let these things go.

FB: That’s what I think is different about our show talking about racism in that day and time, as opposed to ‘Hairspray’ and ‘Carolina Change.’ I think that we go there. We show how ugly it was. I think it’s necessary. I say it all the time – it’s a history lesson. We didn’t live through it, but it’s necessary that we show younger generations where we came from.

I’m from Montgomery, Alabama, the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church is downtown, Rosa Parks is my cousin … We all bring something totally different to the story and I think it all affects us all in a different way … Our show is a huge reminder that people are still fighting for freedom and equality. In the ’50s, people were fighting for the right to vote. Now, people are fighting for the right marry and love who they want to love.

“Memphis” runs until Oct. 21 at the Buell Theatre, 1101 13th St. in Denver. Tickets start at $25. Information: 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707