Review: Theater League’s ‘Memphis’ a brash, thought-provoking experience

04/16/2014 1:21 PM

08/08/2014 10:34 AM

Despite the exuberant music, joyous dancing and obvious youthful fun, “Memphis,” the 2010 Tony-winning best musical, never loses track of its serious message about the destructive, corrosive nature of racism in 1950s America. This is not just a nostalgic jukebox musical.

Inspired by real-life Memphis radio DJ Dewey Phillips, the show by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan says that hate – mostly through ignorance and fear – may be inevitable, but hope – mostly through opening our eyes and hearts to each other – is possible.

And the catalyst is music as a scruffy white boy who can’t seem to do anything right. He suddenly finds his calling in the rhythm and blues sounds of Memphis’ famed Beale Street and vows to bring it to the world. He also falls for a black soul singer and heedlessly dares the world to object.

It’s not a happily-ever-after fairy tale. Indeed, many of the equality struggles begun half a century ago are still present today. But “Memphis” wears its heart on its sleeve and makes believers of us all.

The production that opened Tuesday as the final show for the 2013-14 Theater League season is a loud, brash, colorful, thought-provoking, haunting, heartbreaking and, ultimately, mesmerizing experience that will leave you standing and cheering.

The book/lyrics by DiPietro, best known for the sophisticated, long-running comedy “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” is often funny, but also sharp and insightful. The music by Bryan, who wrote the award-winning “The Toxic Avenger” with DiPietro, ranges from gospel to R&B to ballad to a big Broadway treatment of rock ’n’ roll (with even, amusingly, an homage to “A Chorus Line” rhythms in one dance segment).

The show is practically non-stop with director Christopher Ashley beautifully blending one scene into the next by silently shifting a couple of pieces of scenery and subtly shifting the intensity of lighting to whip up scenes from a moody Beale Street nightclub to a busy radio station control room to a TV studio full of enthusiastic young dancers a la “American Bandstand.”

Choreographer Sergio Trujillo adds to the constant flow with high-kicking, hip-shaking homages to rock ’n’ roll moves of the period, including a black/white dance-off that ultimately merges together. And the eight-piece band under music director/keyboardist Alan J. Plado keeps the pace lively behind a scrim as part of the scenery, becoming more visible as the show progresses.

At the heart of the action are Joey Elrose as the plain-spoken, open-hearted Huey, who declares that so-called “race music” is “the music of my soul,” and Jasmin Richardson as Felicia, a beautiful, aspiring singer who never thought about a career outside of black clubs until lovestruck Huey convinces her to dream big.

Elrose, who previously toured through here with “Rock of Ages,” plays Huey as a lovably goofy guy who pushes social, racial and political boundaries because he doesn’t think about consequences. That’s both his strength and his failure, and Elrose skillfully embodies that comedy/tragedy dichotomy.

Richardson (previously seen as Deena in “Dreamgirls”) is a knockout, both visually and vocally. Her Felicia believably blossoms from a local act to a national talent through show stopper after show stopper, from her soul-searching “Colored Woman” to the beautiful “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls.”

RaMond Thomas is an appropriately thundering presence as Felicia’s overprotective brother, Delray, whose “She’s My Sister” packs a punch. Pat Sibley provides a redeeming surprise as Huey’s racist mother who comes up with the unexpectedly comic and thrilling “Change Don’t Come Easy” when she sees what love does for her son.

But the unquestioned highlight is an unforgettable moment created by Avionce Hoyles as Gator. He commands every ear with the lovely and haunting “Say a Prayer.”

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