By Amy J. Barry
Move a mountain, change the world!
For I can't be weak too much longer,
Oh lord, lord, lord, make me stronger!
-- From Memphis by Joe DiPietro
Memphis by Joe DiPietro opened in New York just five years ago, garnering four Tony awards. Having seen it on Broadway, I had my doubts about how the Ivoryton Playhouse was going to pull off this large-scale, high-energy musical on its modest stage.
But just like South Pacific that preceded Memphis, the Ivoryton took a gamble and produced a winning musical that is captivating audiences.
There’s something especially fascinating about a production based on a true story that took place at a pivotal time in history and had a real impact on what followed. Memphis is one of those shows. The main character, Huey Calhoun, is inspired by Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s South.
Carson Higgins gives an impassioned performance as the colorblind white kid, who had nothing to show for his poverty-ridden upbringing except his love of this roots music that stirred his soul. And his courage and determination to get it on the airwaves in lieu of the yawn-inducing Perry Como and Patty Page, even though younger listening audiences craved this new sound that the white radio station owners dubbed “race music” and banned. That is, until Huey showed them what a handsome profit they could turn spinning “negro” records.
Renee Jackson plays the lead female role of Felicia, the beautiful singer, who the starry-eyed Huey falls in love with. But eventually the couple realizes there is no bridging their cultural divide. She wants to go north where they won’t have to hide their relationship, but he can’t leave the only home he’s ever known. Jackson earnestly evokes Felicia’s struggle between her love for Huey and her desire to continue on the road to stardom that he got her on.
Underlying the show’s exuberant score made up of blues, rock, and gospel songs, there is always the painful truth of prejudice, amplifying the uncomfortable fact that such a deep racial divide still existed in the U.S., where segregation continued to be practiced in many states well into the 1960s. And, as we are all too well aware, continues to rear its ugly head today.
DiPietro, to his credit, doesn’t sugar coat the message for a musical audience or give it a politically correct spin. He tells it like it is -- at times raw and ugly -- and he concludes the play with a realistic, rather than a happily-ever-after fairytale ending.
The musical bursts with energy under Todd L. Underwood’s splendid direction and choreography, coupled with Michael Morris’s superbly orchestrated music performed by a highly skilled on-stage band.
Add to that Martin Scott Marchitto’s set design -- among the best I’ve seen at the Ivoryton -- capturing 1950s Memphis: the street life, the seedy underground night clubs, the radio stations and recording studios, where rock ‘n roll first came on the scene.
And, bring it all together with an enthusiastic and talented cast of dancing and singing actors giving 100 percent to their roles -- dressing their parts in Elizabeth Cipollina’s fun ‘50s outfits -- and you’ve got a show that really packs a punch.
Among the many standout numbers is “She’s My Sister,” in a powerhouse delivery by Teren Carter who plays Delray, Felicia’s protective brother…the jump up and dance “Everybody Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night,” performed by the company, the heart-rending gospel “Make Me Stronger,” sung by Huey, Felicia, and company, and “Big Love” sung by David Robbins as Bobby that gets everybody rockin.’
The one thing that detracted from the performance the night we attended was the mic-ing of the performers, which was loud and echoing, but assumedly fixable.
Performances of Memphis continue at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton through August 30. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 860-767-7318 or by online at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org
This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.