Performers say social messages in musical ‘Memphis’ are relevant today

04/11/2014 2:00 PM

08/08/2014 10:34 AM

Joey Elrose figures that during the course of the 2½-hour running time of “Memphis,” the 2010 Tony-winning best musical that opens Tuesday in Century II as the final show this year for Theater League, he’s only off stage for about 7½ minutes.

“It’s nonstop. It’s a lot of cardio. I’m in every scene but only off stage for some quick changes – maybe 7½ minutes total,” Elrose says about his character, Huey Calhoun. Based loosely on real-life Dewey Phillips, Huey is a brash young white DJ who dares to champion so-called “race music” on Memphis radio during the 1950s.

“He’s always talking. He’s always blabbing. He’s a crazy, slippery-lipped, smooth-talking guy always trying to get his ideas across to people who aren’t ready to listen,” Elrose says.

“He also falls in love with a black soul singer at a time when that was dangerous and illegal in many places in the South. He’s stubborn, which is his strength. But it’s also his downfall. I can identify with that – although I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a native New Yorker or because I’m from a large Italian family,” Elrose says with a laugh.

Elrose, who toured previously with “Grease” and “Rock of Ages” (which brought him to Wichita the first time), traces Huey’s roller-coaster life and career from 1952 to 1960. The emotions range from rousing rock ’n’ roll highs to tragic personal lows through his troubled affair with beautiful, talented Felicia, whose star seems to rise as his falters.

The show was written by Joe DiPietro, best known for the long-running off-Broadway treat “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” and the music is by David Bryan, the curly-haired keyboardist of Bon Jovi. “Memphis” ran nearly three years on Broadway and collected four Tony Awards, including best musical.

Among the songs that helped win the accolades are “Everybody Wants to Be Black on Saturday Night,” “Make Me Stronger,” “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails” and “Change Don’t Come Easy.”

“What I love about Huey is that he’s so full of love. He loves what he loves and can’t see why everybody else doesn’t. He’s a goofball and an optimist. He doesn’t see the danger in his situation,” Elrose says.

“But that love is what lets you see beyond his faults – and there are plenty. He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He quit school so early he never learned to read properly. He’s illiterate and has to fake reading radio commercials, which leads to outrageous ad libbing and his famous catch phrase, ‘Hockadoo!,’ ” the actor says.

“He had a lot going against him, so he drifted from job to job until he finally found something he was good at. He fell in love with music and fell into a radio career. It only took him 35 years,” he says.

“But when he went after something he wanted, he threw caution to the winds – even on national TV. He thought that because he was popular, people were ready for change. But they weren’t – not yet.”

Even though the story happened half a century ago before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Elrose says there are lessons to be learned today.

“I was in a relationship with a black girl for two years, and I saw the looks of disapproval from some older people. It wasn’t shocking, but it was heartbreaking,” Elrose says. “The same thing is happening with the LGBT (gay) community when two guys walk down the street holding hands. The lessons from ‘Memphis’ can apply to them, too.”

Jasmin Richardson, who plays Huey’s forbidden love, Felicia, agrees that some of the social messages in “Memphis” are relevant to today.

“The show gives me hope that when you fight for what you believe in, there is nothing you can’t accomplish. It also reminds me that the rights we fight for now affect future generations,” Richardson says. “We have to stay diligent in fighting for equality for all.”

Richardson is from Houston and comes from a musical family. She jokes that she “was born with a bedazzled microphone” in her hand, following in the footsteps of her actress/teacher mother and gospel-singing grandmother, who performed with the same group for more than 50 years.

When Richardson moved to New York after graduating from college in 2009, her first job was one of the leads in the national tour of “Dreamgirls.”

“Deena was a huge experience and huge learning curve,” Richardson says, adding that it was perfect preparation for her role as Felicia in “Memphis.”

“She (Felicia) is a pillar of strength. She avidly pursues her dreams and aspirations. I love that she says what’s on her mind, which, during that time, was huge for an African-American woman,” Richardson says.

“I relate to her strength. She’s very much about protecting those who aren’t always able to protect themselves. She never gives up, even when the odds are against her.”

Of her songs, Richardson says: “Singing this music is like eating warm apple pie with a scoop of ice cream. It’s just good for the soul.”

REVIEW: Theater League’s 'Memphis' a brash, thought-provoking experience

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