MTD's MEMPHIS has powerful message, but lacks heart
Love is love. That is the overarching message to the storyline of MEMPHIS. Love who you love: male, female, black or white. In the case of this particular show, the historically societal boundary being crossed is one of race. However, the words and songs in the script could apply to many current-day issues. Sadly, the performance at Music Theatre of Denton misses the mark and the message is lost amid uneven performances and questionable direction.
For those not familiar with the show, MEMPHIS is loosely based on the life of Dewey Phillips (known in the show as Huey), a radio disc jockey who became one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s. As the title indicates, the story takes place in Memphis, where Huey learns his love of R&B on Beale Street at a hole-in-the-wall club called Delray's (named for the owner) - and ends up falling in love with a talented black singer, Delray's sister Felicia. Because it is the 50s, Huey is forced to overcome much prejudice in both his personal and professional choices, but it becomes clear that he is ahead of his time in his thinking and the world just wasn't ready to change that quickly.
The turning point in the story is when a casting decision has to be made, and the producers are looking to whitewash the production. Huey forcefully disagrees, and it ends up costing him his career. The message is extremely timely, as there has been a huge movement in the theatre world over the past couple years to cast racially appropriate actors in the roles that were specifically written for them (think WEST SIDE STORY, IN THE HEIGHTS, MISS SAIGON). Although casting decisions these days aren't as blatantly discriminatory, there is still a long way to go in bringing appropriate diversity to the stage.
There are two standout performances in this particular production. First is Chris Portley as Delray Farrell, owner of the club where the whole story begins. His strong presence, nuanced and believable acting, as well as his impressive voice made it a pleasure to watch and listen to him. Next, Ms. Christian Houston, who plays Felicia Farrell, portrays every bit of the until-now undiscovered talent with an ease and charisma that is unteachable. When she is performing, she owns the stage and all eyes are drawn to her. It doesn't hurt that her voice is perfectly suited to the majority of the numbers she leads.
Two other moments worth mentioning are some powerful solos by both Sydney Barber (playing Bobby, a Delray's patron) and Amanda Rose Fisher (as Huey's mom). Although their characters are supporting roles, they each get a chance to take centerstage and wow their audience with their vocal prowess.
Regrettably, playing opposite Ms. Houston, Jonathan McInnis as Huey just doesn't give the energy or personality enough to carry this show - and it sits solely on his back. He tended to deliver his lines quietly and, though it may be due to opening night jitters, fidgeted with his hair enough to be distracting. On a positive note, he has the range and sometimes displayed the power needed to draw the audience in. It was just inconsistent.
In addition to the remainder of the cast seeming unsure of themselves and under-rehearsed, there were some technical and directorial challenges that brought the show's energy down even more. The sound was often crackly or, in some cases, mics were not turned on as needed. The lighting was pretty, but did not always help to tell the story, as some painfully long scene changes were done in full view of the audience by members of the technical crew. The set was oddly designed, with an oversized set piece rolled in and out several times through the show, three levels that seemed to have no purpose, as well as a wall painted like a factory or something with some plumbing that never related to the show. Even the onstage band, with the exception of music director Benjamin Brown, seemed to lack an interest in being there, playing the rousing and catchy music written by David Bryan of Bon Jovi fame with no visible excitement.
If you decide to take a trip down to Beale Street and visit Memphis, it is running at Music Theatre of Denton through May 13th, 2018. Tickets and more information can be found at www.musictheatreofdenton.com.