Memphis

by Stu Brown

Memphis, the 2010 Tony Award winning Best Musical, now playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through August 30th, is lively and entertaining. While there are deficiencies in the show, the passion and enthusiasm of the performers helps gloss them over, providing an overall winning production.

The musical takes place in Memphis during the 1950’s. Racial segregation is the norm, especially in the music industry. Huey Calhoun (Carson Higgins), a white man, undereducated and a self-proclaimed redneck, nevertheless embraces the world of rhythm and blues. He frequents a club run by a black entrepreneur, Delray (Teren Carter), and is enamored with the owner’s beautiful and talented sister Felicia (Renee Jackson), the in-house singer. He vows to take his love of soul music to the masses and soon has turned a stodgy, white music only radio station upside down and created a musical sensation. He continues to break down barriers and agitate the status quo as his popularity in the southern city soars. But the south, at this time in our history, was not a forgiving place. Racial harmony was absent and the love of a white man and black woman could cause painful, tragic and heartbreaking results. These consequences are all played out throughout the show as characters evolve, times begin to change and life moves on.

The score by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, of the rock group Bon Jovi, is full of energy and exhilaration. They are conveyed with a vitality and urgency worthy of this dawning of rock ‘n roll. Unlike many recent Broadway musicals there are a number of songs that stay with you long after you leave the theater. Standouts include “The Music of My Soul,” “Someday,” “Stand Up,” and “Steal Your Rock ‘n Roll.”

The cast is uniformly good. They are led by Carson Higgins as Huey Calhoun. He has invested a passion and earnestness into his role that makes his character believable and sympathetic. Renee Jackson, while a fine actress, doesn’t infuse Felicia with enough conviction and hunger. If she had a more powerful singing voice to belt out her musical numbers, her performance would have reached the higher level necessary for the role.

Notable among the supporting performers are Melodie Wolford as Huey’s mother, Gladys. At first she brought little depth to her role, but slowly becomes more multi-dimensional culminating in her song, “Change Don’t Come Easy.” Jamal Shuriah has a quiet intensity as Gator, a nightclub worker who does not speak. But by the end of Act I his gospel-inflected outpouring had the audience applauding. David Robbins’ Bobby, a denizen of Delray’s and confidante to Huey, is a bear of a man with a pleasing voice and sweet moves on the dance floor.

Joe DiPietro’s book for the show resonates in today’s society as race relations are questioned and examined across the media. He successfully portrays a time in America that underwent a significant cultural transformation. The libretto is fast-paced and effectively addresses the triumphs and adversities of the characters. The show can pack an emotional wallop since we grow to care about the players and want them to succeed.

Director/choreographer Todd Underwood has delivered a rousing production, which, unfortunately, can be uneven at times. For example, the relationship between Huey and Felicia, which should be one of the key features of the show, generates few sparks. Most of the large dance numbers need to be more polished. Yet, even with these drawbacks, he keeps the action moving through the many scene changes on the small stage and builds the musical to a satisfying climax.

Memphis, a spirited, summer ending musical at the Ivoryton Playhouse through August 30th.

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CONNECTICUT CRITICS CIRCLE