When she was cast in “Memphis,” the Tony-winning musical about the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll and the Civil Rights movement, Felicia Boswell insists she didn’t have to do much in the way of research. It was literally in her blood.
“There’s a reference made in the script to Rosa Parks, when Huey (the maverick DJ who breaks down barriers by playing “race records” and wooing an African-American woman) says, ‘Maybe there’s hope for us. Did you hear about that Negro woman in Alabama who refused to give up her seat on the bus?’ Well, Rosa Parks is my cousin,” Boswell said in a phone interview from a tour stop in Cleveland.
Her character in “Memphis” is Felicia Farrell, a Beale Street songstress who catches Huey’s eye and becomes his lover. Although the two Felicias may be separated by a 60-year gap, Boswell says they have much in common.
“Felicia Boswell and Felicia Farrell are both from the South,” she said. “They both have dreams of recording. They both want to be big stars. They both date outside our race.”
And neither singer has any professional training. Boswell — who grew up in Montgomery, Ala. and attended Sidney Lanier High School, the alma mater of both Toni Tennille and Zelda Fitzgerald — broke into the business at the age of 6, performing gospel music with her family on a Sunday morning radio show.
“I feel very fortunate to be playing Felicia Farrell because this is such an easy fit for me,” Boswell said. “I feel I was destined to play this role.”
Even so, Boswell almost passed up the opportunity. She was performing in a tour of “Dreamgirls” and didn’t pay much attention to friends who kept trying to point her toward “Memphis.”
“They were telling me there was this show that I would be great for and I should go see it,” Boswell said. “But I was so wrapped up in all things ‘Dreamgirls,’ I didn’t have time.
“On a break, a friend and I finally went to see ‘Memphis,’ and I was floored, just blown away. I booked the show two weeks after that.”
But in order to join the Broadway cast of “Memphis,” Boswell had to bow out of another role she’d already lined up: She had been slated to play the lioness Nala in the Las Vegas production of “The Lion King,” “another dream of mine,” she said.
But Boswell is happy with her choice, and the critics are delighted, too.
“Clearly, the hardest-working person under the lights is Felicia Boswell, who sings often and brilliantly as Felicia,” noted reviewer Christine Howley of Cleveland Scene magazine. “She nails every musical mode — from pounding gospel to mellow blues ballad to the empowering anthem ‘Colored Woman.’"
On Broadway, Boswell understudied the role of Felicia as a “cover” — a performer who fills in for a star during a vacation or a leave of absence — and attracted the attention of Christopher Ashley, who was going to direct the touring show.
There are plenty of dramas set in the South of the 1950s, but Boswell thinks “Memphis” has its own appeal and a message that transcends the setting.
“I think people can’t deny that innate desire for love,” she said. “That’s what different about this show. It’s a beautiful love story, along with telling a huge part of history. It’s not just about a relationship, but an interracial relationship in a time when it was illegal and people could be killed for it.”
As Huey and Felicia try to build a future together, they have to contend with intolerance and disapproval from their community that eventually boils over into violence.
“I really like that about our show, that we have really gritty moments along with the happy moments,” Boswell said. “You see the lighter side of two people being in love, but also the complications that come along with it, in that day and time, and how it affected their careers, their lives and their safety, even.”
After the “Memphis” tour winds down, Boswell would like to follow in the footsteps of her “Memphis” co-star Brian Fenkart, who recently released a CD (“Simple & Grey”). Her tastes run to “pop and R&B: I love lighthearted, good-feeling music with a little bit of love and funk and groove.”
She’s also eager to make the transition into film and TV, where she might really set herself apart from that other Felicia.
“My prayer is to land a sitcom,” she said. “I’m the biggest clown, although I don’t have the opportunity to show that very often as Felicia Farrell.”
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 27, Wednesday, March 28, Thursday, March 29
8 p.m. Friday, March 30; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 31; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 1
$30-$67; $25 students