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Soul music is not only beautiful to the ear, it’s a visual eyeful lately, with the explosive musical Memphis at the Kravis Center and the expansive talents of singer, musician, actor and designer Lenny Kravitz coming to SunFest soon.

Opening night of Memphis was a joyous affair, as a younger, mixed crowd packed the house to see the Tony award winning musical. The story touches on a lot of social, racial and musical hot buttons still resonating today. Set in the 1950s, it tells a bigger story with fictional characters based on real life events. White DJ Huey, who dresses like the offbeat mix-matched character he is, dares to bump the milquetoast Perry Como off the air for some hip-shaking rock roots music, causing an uproar but launching his career as a number one DJ and later as a TV host. He meets and falls for black singer Felicia at a local club called Delray and helps set her career in motion but also stirring up some awful racist consequences.

The musical was written by David Bryan of Bon Jovi, the very white keyboard player from New Jersey whose band has sold over 150 million records for some serious green and knows a thing or two about putting on a good show to go for the gold. But Memphis really exceeded expectations, as Bryan honed the music and lyrics for 7 years at theaters around the country before the show hit Broadway in 2009 and cleaned up at the Tony Awards. “It’s not just entertaining, it’s an important story,” Bryan said.

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What I really love about the show is the set design, how they used acidic colors of purple, yellows and reds to recreate the steamy, gritty town on the Mississippi River’s blues clubs, churches, run down radio stations and apartments. The nightclub set of Delray’s Bar is particularly great, with a twisty staircase, bar that slides in from stage left and the band onstage behind the dance floor. A church set is spiritually beautiful, while the set of Huey’s TV show is all flash and 50s cornball with a preppie dancing alligator mascot. Costumes from sequin period dresses to zoot suits to Huey’s slacker duds round out the eye candy.

This is big time Broadway all the way, with high energy dancers, a razzamatazz original score and a story about the big issues in America.

Coming to the stage at SunFest is Lenny Kravitz

lenny
Lenny Kravitz

The act I’m most eager to see, playing music from his new record Strut. The former dreadlocked rocker has gone sleek creating a new career as a designer, opening Kravitz Design many years ago and doing such varied work as the set of the Queen Latifah Show, The Florida Room club at the Delano Hotel in Miami Beach, residences in NYC and Paris, as well as product design. His interior design is luxe, rife with deep colors, metallic accents and atmospheric lighting. He loves a kick of zebra or mixing an old world classic pattern with something modern. He uses leather, brocade, fur, lots of gleaming woods and Lucite for warm glowing spaces you never want to leave.

His latest creative foray is the photo exhibition Flash by Lenny Kravitz which celebrated its premiere at LA’s Leica Gallery. Kravitz publicly showcased photographs that were first published in Flash, the book that was published in tandem with the exhibit. The show and book are photos Kravitz took along the road of his surreal life as a public star. From his view it’s pretty strange as he turns the camera on the eager anxious faces of photographers, fans and other strangers that are in his face on a daily basis. From being a rock star, an actor in the big box office The Hunger Games and The Butler films, Kravitz is uber famous on many levels.

Seen from this unique angle, his works reveal much about the photographer, his life, and his subjects in an intense personal, aesthetic way. The photographs document Kravitz’ world tours and offer unusual insights into the nomadic life of a musician, which is often lonelier than it looks. The pictures for Flash were all captured with equipment from the Leica M-System. Kravitz shoots with a Leica he likes so much that a limited special edition of 125 Leica “Correspondent” cameras were developed in collaboration with Kravitz and his creative firm and are available in a set with two lenses and a handmade case. The camera and lenses of the special edition all feature a hand made unique “vintage finish”.

But what fans will be coming out to see is him and his music, including songs from his 10th studio album Strut, put out on his new imprint Roxie Records, named after his mother. The record was released last fall and hit number 19 on the US Billboard charts. Kravitz is one stylish dandy, with his leather pants, nose studs, silver jewelry and tattoos. Filled with the stomping rock and psychedelic blues he’s known for, Strut features songs like funky rocker “Strut” and sexier than thou in Paris “The Chamber” pulsate with Kravitz’s self assured power.

One more blues show to catch…

Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill at Dramaworks downtown on Clematis Street opening May 15 and running through June 7. The show captures one of the last performances of jazz blues great Billie Holiday that took place in a bar in Philadelphia just four months before her death, as she ruminates her hard luck life with a charmed voice through the songs that defined her – “God Bless the Child,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Strange Fruit” and “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness.” There will be more than a dozen songs performed. The show on Broadway made a star of singer Audra McDonald whose stage presence and vocal prowess pay fine, aching tribute to Holiday.

The intimacy of the Dramaworks Theater will be a great setting for this show. Singer Tracey Conyer Lee will be performing in the role of Holiday. I can smell the cigarettes and gardenias already.

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Sandra-Schulman Sandra Schulman is an arts writer, music and film producer. Born in Miami, her work has appeared in Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Ocean Drive, Country Music Magazine, The New York Daily News, News From Indian Country, and Entertainment Weekly. She was an entertainment columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 8 years. She has authored three books on pop culture. She currently lives in West Palm Beach with her blue eyed whippet. Sandra Schulman’s column appears weekly. Contact her at sandraslink@gmail.com.

Roots and Soul from Memphis, Lenny and Lady Day: Blues and Soul Music in West Palm Beach in the Coming Days of April & May at the Kravis Center and SunFest.