BWW Review: MEMPHIS Gets Houston Flavor at TUTS

BWW Review: MEMPHIS Gets Houston Flavor at TUTS

MEMPHIS depicts the culture shift in 1950's Tennessee where rhythm and blues, a popular black American music genre, helped make racial equality and diversity popular opinion among white Americans. Even so, the songs in MEMPHIS note that change is never easy or quick, and the show also serves as a troubling snapshot of where we were not all that long ago -- a divided world of black and white.


MEMPHIS follows a deejay who plays black music on the radio for the first time to a white audience. He ends up falling for a beautiful singer in a club on the wrong side of the tracks, and their interracial coupling provides the drama for the rest of the evening. They struggle through a city and a country that refuses to accept them, even when they come to embrace the music. It harkens back to WEST SIDE STORY or ROMEO AND JULIET with the star-crossed lovers finding out how hard it is to make it when your families are feuding and the world demands your love not be known in public.

The show rests on Barrett Riggins, who plays radio deejay Huey, a character loosely based on the real Memphis legend Dewey Phillips. He's a hard role to nail with a strange Southern Cajun twang that can almost be grating if not handled carefully. Luckily for TUTS audiences, Riggins makes Huey lovable and accessible despite the nasal voice. When he sings you instantly begin to see a beautiful soul that yearns to make his home a better place where black and white are no longer divided. Houston-based actress Simone Gundy plays his romantic interest, singer Felicia Farrell. Gundy has an amazing singing voice and like her male co-star is easy to love. She's graceful and takes command of the stage with just a smile and a glimmer of her eyes. This pair is what makes MEMPHIS work, and TUTS is lucky to have gotten them both to create these characters.

Theatre Under the Stars is taking the occasion to introduce a new artistic director to produce MEMPHIS with a supporting cast and crew from Houston. During his curtain speech, the director and new man that guides TUTS, Dan Knechtges, told the audience how proud he was to use local talent to bring his vision of the show to life. The ensemble supporting the leads, the stage crew, and even the orchestra are Houston artists who are helping TUTS come back to its hometown roots as a theater that uses people around the city to help make productions. The neatest addition to the cast are the members of the student ensemble from the TUTS Humphreys School who bring a unique, infectious joy to being on the Hobby Center's huge stage in a Broadway-style production. Their fun is infectious and gives MEMPHIS a nice lift for audiences, and it gives the kids a chance to hone and perfect their craft. Another standout in the supporting cast is Julie Johnson as Huey's mother. She's hysterical and lands her jokes, but also nails her solos with precision. Warren Nolan, Jr. as Delray and Avionce Hoyles as Gator also impress with spot-on performances that elevate the show.

The set is simple, just a few panels that have lights that merge in and out to reveal interiors of deejay booths and television studios. It works just fine even if it's not huge or flashy. The costumes are great with nice touches throughout, especially the outfits for the singing stars of the rising world of R&B. Technically the show is solid and handsome enough to be clean and useful without distracting from all the dancing and singing.

MEMPHIS is a great step for TUTS -- a thought-provoking, timely piece on race relations featuring a significant number of Houston artists. It's directed and staged well, and the show entertains throughout the run time. It doesn't shy away from the ugly truth that America in the '50s treated women and black people with disdain and injustice, and it never feels like it panders. And despite the dark time it depicts, there is a joy about romance and music that gives this show its soul. I will say that in a show named MEMPHIS, to never nod at Elvis Presley, who took soul music for his own career, seems like a missed opportunity. But maybe there can be a sequel to address that.

MEMPHIS runs through March 4 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. You can purchase tickets through tuts.com/tickets or by contacting their box office at 713-558-8887.

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From This Author Brett Cullum

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