In The Heat of the Music

By Geary Danihy

The Ivoryton Playhouse is following up its stellar production of South Pacific with another musical that deals with racial tension. Memphis, winner of the 2010 Tony for Best Musical, is based on the life of Dewey Phillips, a Memphis disc jockey who was one of the first white DJs to play “black” music. The production (with Dream Girls in its DNA and Show Boat in its family tree), here directed and choreographed by Todd Underwood, boasts music by David Bryan (Bon Jovi’s keyboardist) and book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro (who also penned I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and All Shook Up). In its current manifestation, the Ivoryton production is an entertaining, deftly staged two hours of ballads, Gospel and Rock ‘N Roll, framed by an inter-racial love story and the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1950s. Given some minor technical problems that will be ironed out, it is sure to please audiences as much as South Pacific did.

Memphis opens with two DJs, one white, one black (on balconies stage right and left, compliments of scenic designer Martin Scott Marchitto), introducing music that illustrates the divide that existed in the early 50s: there is mainstream “white” music that fills the airways (think Perry Como and Patti Page) and then there is what is politely termed “racial” music (there are other, more pejorative terms for it). The white DJ is broadcasting on a station located “in the middle of the dial,” while the black DJ is on a station whose frequency puts it at the end of the dial (If you ask “What dial?” talk with your grandparents).

In essence, racial music is segregated, for, to borrow from Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, there’s a fear that what is being purveyed will “grab your son and your daughter / With the arms of a jungle animal instink! / Mass-staria!” The lyrics and the pulsing beat of “racial” music often speak to sexual desires and fulfillment (versus Page’s cooing about the cost of a “doggie in the window”). There’s a need to “Scratch my Itch,” and in mid-century Memphis “itches” were seldom spoken of and the scratching of same in an inter-racial relationship was anathema.

As a side-bar, audience members of a certain age (I’m thinking here primarily of Millennials) may find some of the implied tensions and allusions in Memphis a bit confusing or opaque. It’s not that racial problems have disappeared, (current headlines put the lie to that supposition), but things have changed, and the sight of an inter-racial couple walking hand-in-hand down the street no longer has the visceral impact it once did, nor are there laws on the books that ban miscegenation. DiPietro has chosen, and wisely so, not to turn Memphis into a polemic, thus leaving many things not fully explained (either emotionally or intellectually) for those who have no memory of Selma, Rosa Parks or “White Only” water fountains. Again, if you are of a certain age and are planning to attend, you would do well to do so with your grandparents, then take them out to dinner and ask a lot of questions. You might be surprised at their answers.

The DJ lead-in is followed by a night at “Delray’s,” a black bar owned by Delray (Terren Carter) that features “racial” music, much of it sung by Delray’s sister, Felicia (Renee Jackson) as lead singer. The crowd goes suddenly silent as a door opens and Huey (the charismatic Carson Higgins) enters, the silence engendered because Huey is white. Patrons scramble to leave, but Huey rushes to a piano to explain that their music is “The Music of My Soul.” Thus, the conflict is established early: Delray doesn’t buy “Whitey’s” protestations and senses only trouble brewing, while Huey is attracted not only to the music but also to Felicia.

Huey has been something of a non-entity, but his attraction to “racial” music becomes his ticket to a certain amount of local fame and fortune, for he parlays his proclivities into, first, a job selling records, and then a spot as a DJ on one of the local “white” radio stations owned by Mr. Simmons (Beau Allen), a pragmatic businessman. He spins rock ‘n roll platters rather than schmaltz, and the response, especially amongst the youth of Memphis, is overwhelmingly positive. Soon, Huey has his own TV dance show (with black dancers) and is deep in a relationship with Felicia, much to the initial consternation of his mother Gladys (Melodie Wolford). Huey and Felicia are, of course, star-crossed lovers, and while Felicia goes on to fame, fortune and a national tour, Huey’s star fades, while that of Richard (i.e. “Dick) Clark rises. (Who’s Dick Clark? Ask your grandparents). Yet, there is a final recognition of what Huey has accomplished when Felicia, back in Memphis on tour, asks him to share the stage with her, leading to the rousing “Steal Your Rock ‘N Roll” finale.

That all of this works, and works so well, is, first, a credit to Underwood, who keeps things moving and has managed to utilize every inch of the somewhat limited Ivoryton stage space. It all seems bigger than it really is, and this is because Underwood understands how best to utilize tight space. In an interview a year ago, when Underwood was choreographing La Cage aux Folles for Ivoryton, he explained that the key is to build “from being just mid-stage to using the entire stage and that will give the illusion the theater is bigger. Of course, lighting helps and costumes help, and keeping the number building and moving, making sure that it doesn’t become stagnant.” His philosophy is apparent in the many ensemble numbers in Memphis, no more so than in the finale, which has multiple “builds.”

One of the director’s jobs is to focus the audience’s attention, to basically tell them what to look at, and proof of Underwood’s skill in doing this is a dance scene that takes place at the television studio. The dancers are center stage, with the TV camera lower stage right, but the script calls for a minor dramatic interaction between some of the major characters. This could have been visually confusing, but what Underwood does is have the camera shift up stage, drawing the dancers away to form a diagonal line with their backs to the audience as other actors move into the center stage area. It’s a nifty piece of blocking that continues the dance while manipulating focus.

As good as Underwood is, Ivoryton’s Memphis lives or dies with the talent up there on the stage, and it is, across the board, excellent, starting with Higgins as Huey. He’s awkward when necessary, geeky, and often self-deprecating, yet Higgins gives Huey an essential joie de vivre that is entrancing and engaging, an unbridled enthusiasm for life and the music that allows him to overcome put-downs, violence and prejudice. There may be some in the audience who may not, initially, buy the character’s apparent cluelessness about the nature of race relations in mid-century Memphis (or his illiteracy), and it does take a little suspension of disbelief to accept that his guilelessness is not feigned, but Higgins, with his “Aw, shucks” manner, manages to pull it off.

As Huey’s love interest, Jackson is both sensual and restrained, ably conveying the frustrations of a black woman even considering a relationship with a white man in the mid-century culture of the South. The only problem with her performance is a technical one – it’s a sound problem. Often her dialogue is a bit mushy, and it’s often difficult to understand the lyrics when she is singing (also true for many of the other actors) – and many of the lyrics are intrinsic to an understanding of what is going on. This is not the fault of the actor but rather that of the technical staff which, most likely, is aware of the problem and will resolve same (this was just the second preview and, from what I understand, tech rehearsals never got to run through the entire show). There are also some problems with projected images (which seem superfluous) -- meant to present visual reminders of the era, many look more like gray blobs.

Supporting cast members add style and flair to the production, and many have their moments in the spotlight. There’s Bobby (David Robbins), an erstwhile janitor who is thrust onto the stage of Huey’s TV show and delivers a powerful and moving “Big Love.” Then there’s Gator (Jamal Shuriah), who plays a mute (going silent as a child after seeing his father being lynched) who finally bursts into song with the heartfelt “Say a Prayer.” And not to be missed is Wolford as Huey’s mom, a lady who is changed by her son’s advocacy and the fervor of the parishioners of a local black church, which leads her to the rousing “Change Don’t Come Easy.”

Finally, Carter, as Felicia’s brother, is the whetstone against which Huey must sharpen his sensitivities about what he is doing and the realities of race relations circa 1950. Carter gives us a Delray that is a strong mixture of controlled rage and compassion, and basically stops the show near the end of Act One with his rendition of “She’s My Sister.”

Yes, there are stereotypes and the plot seldom rises above that of a soap opera, but this isn’t supposed to be Ibsen or Williams, it’s a musical, and as such it deals with racial tensions and discrimination in a format that, while thought-provoking, seeks to entertain. And, yes, there’s a message, but DiPietro isn’t didactic, and Underwood has opted to let the book speak for itself without feeling compelled to drive home a point.

What he has done, with the help of some very effective lighting by Doug Harry and Marchitto’s versatile, fluid set (which evokes a dance club, several radio stations, a kitchen, an apartment and a TV station), is give us a basic story line punctuated by musical set-pieces that capture an era and all of its inherent tensions, delights and frustrations, and as for build, besides the aforementioned finale, all you have to do is sit back and watch Act Two’s multi-layered “Tear Down the House” to enjoy how a musical number can entertain, advance the plot and play on your emotions all at the same time. It’s a fine piece of work by all involved, as is Memphis.

Memphis runs through Aug.30. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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