Big Love: Memphis at the Ivoryton PLayhouse

By Brooks Appelbaum

The Ivoryton Playhouse is on a roll—and with Memphis (music by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, lyrics by Bryan and Joe DiPietro, and Book by DiPietro), it’s a rock and roll.

Memphis follows Ivoryton’s tour de force production of Roger’s and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. And though the latter musical is an incomparable classic, Memphis carries on that show’s excellence in directing and choreography (by Todd L. Underwood), superb casting, terrific singing and dancing, and clever use of a small playing space.

Memphis tells a familiar -- and in most respects, predictable -- story, but the musical at least brings along real-world credentials: the main character, Huey Calhoun, is loosely based on pioneering Memphis disc jockey Dewey Philips, who not only brought a vast array of previously prohibited music to radio audiences, but was the first to play Elvis Presley’s earliest album, for which Philips had to prove to listeners that Presley was, in fact, white.

Set in the 1950’s, Memphis introduces us to quirky, irrepressible Huey (Carson Higgins), a young white man in love with what was then called “race music” (he sings about this affinity in “The Music of My Soul”). Huey has failed at every job he’s ever had, but early in the first act, he finds his calling: working as a DJ to bring black rock and roll music into the mainstream.

Meanwhile, Huey becomes increasingly involved with his (at first suspicious) African American friends at Delray’s, an underground music bar, and he falls in love with the most talented singer there, Felicia. In addition to charting the inevitable racial conflicts of this time and place, Memphis charts the conflicts that arise when musical ambition and emotional fulfillment entwine.

Huey is central to the script and story of Memphis, and the actor playing him must be unique, charismatic, and funny. He must also possess a supple voice that can carry an array of musical genres and sound as African American as anyone onstage. In Carson Higgins, Director Underwood has found the ideal Huey. In addition to the above-mentioned qualities, Higgins deepens the character with intelligence and tenderness and has a remarkable kinetic energy that drives the show.

Playing opposite him, as Felicia, Renee Jackson has a star’s voice and presence from the first beat of her first number, played in her brother’s seedy nightclub. But in the musical’s world, Felicia’s color ensures that talent has nothing to do with the fame she deserves beyond the African American community. Jackson expertly portrays the divide between the ever-confident singer and the young woman who is both ambitious and fearful, hopeful and frightened, strong and at the same time dependent on the men around her.

The featured roles are played with equal expertise. The sharply fierce Teren Carter brings interesting nuances to Felicia’s older brother, Delray; and Jamal Shuriah portrays a poignant Gator, the mute bartender at the club. David Robbins is endearingly goofy and charming as the big, and big-voiced, Bobby. And Melodie Wolford makes a nice impression with her acting and her singing as Huey’s mother, Gladys. The other members of the large cast -- some playing multiple roles -- dance and sing with joyous energy, and thanks to director Underwood, the stage never seems crowded.

Elizabeth Cipollina has designed beautiful costumes where appropriate, and elsewhere, her costumes enhance each character’s stage of emotional development. Scenic Designer Martin Scott Marchitto has the challenging task of creating numerous settings in a small space (Delray’s, Huey’s home, a record store, and a radio station, to name just a few), and by using the approach of less is more, he keeps the action flowing. Doug Harry lights the scenes with sensitivity and skill. The sound, designed by Tate R. Burmeister, was still a bit unbalanced on the night I saw the show, but I’m certain that will be quickly corrected. The orchestra itself, conducted by Michael Morris, powers the musical and supports the singers, whether the number is an all-out rocker (“Big Love”); a gospel piece (“Make Me Stronger”); or a ballad (“Love Will Stand When All Else Falls”).

Memphis is one of those musicals that can come across on Broadway as too big, too loud, and too cynically commercial. Ivoryton’s production, by contrast, is pitched perfectly to the lovely little theatre, and Underwood and his cast find and play every note of sincerity and heart in the script and score, creating an invigorating, enjoyable evening of theater.

Memphis runs through August 30. Tickets are available by calling the Ivoryton Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting the website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Ivoryton Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton.

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