BWW Review: MTW Mounts a Pulsating MEMPHIS
Winner of the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical, Memphis is an eye-catching, heart-throbbing musical and fictionalized account of how the music business of the 50s actually changed, and as its lead DJ Huey Carmichael would say, it's "fantastical"! Memphis is currently being revived by MTW in Long Beach for three weeks only through November 6, and the production is thrilling from top to bottom with a great book, great score, sensational direction and choreography and a truly fantastic cast of triple threat actors, singers and dancers. Memphis is one those rare shows that gives the audience a realistic picture of radio and the emergence of television as it took possession of the nation in the early 50s.
Giving Memphis its primary thrust is the interracial love story that emerges between white DJ Huey (Michael Monroe Goodman), based on real-life rebel Dewey Phillips, and black r and b singer Felicia (Kristie Simmons). In 1951 before getting his big break at disc jockeying, Huey hangs around an underground club owned by Felicia's brother Delray (Michael Shepperd). He claims their music is his soul, and, of course, Delray wants him out. When Huey asserts that he will get Felicia on the radio, Delray calls him a whitey out to steal the black man's music. But it doesn't stop here. Huey talks his way into a temporary DJ job, pushes the pulsating music, and becomes number one on the airwaves. Felicia eventually gets on and becomes a local favorite. Delray still objects to her involvement with Huey, as does Huey's upstanding Christian mother (Julie Cardia), who views his dating a black girl, like his boasting, a sin against God. Throughout the story Huey refuses to give up the down home qualities that have made him popular, and when he gets a local gig as announcer of an afternoon TV dance program - not unlike Dick Clark's American Bandstand - serious issues arise. Felicia is sought after by RCA, Huey is offered a national show out of New York, if he agrees to have his black dancers replaced by white ones (as sponsors would otherwise pull out). He refuses, and when he also refuses to be discreet with his love for Felicia by kissing her on the air, he loses the respect of the white audience in Memphis, his ratings and his job. Felicia, black victim that she is, may never have another opportunity at stardom, so goes on to New York without him.
The cast, under Edgar Godineaux's sharp direction and with his ecstatically vibrant choreography, are all terrific. Goodman shines as the little guy from nowhere who has the gall to make it big via the American dream, only to be victimized and destroyed by prejudice. His comedic characterization is impeccable. Simmons wins our hearts as the sweet black woman with the big voice. Above anything, she makes Felicia's loyalty her strongest suit. Cardia is fabulous as Gladys, Huey's mom. She is boldly hilarious and knocks "Change Don't Come Easy" out of the park. It is hard to like Delray, but Shepperd, always a dandy actor and singer, makes his motivations clear and understandable. Kudos as well to Kenneth Mosley as Gator, Jay Donnell as Bobby who is indeed super with "Big Love" and to the rest of the fine ensemble.
Praise also to Stephen Gifford for his effective set design, Karen St. Pierre for bright period costumes, Eric Larson for superb lighting, Audio Production Geeks, LLC for superior sound, and Joanathan Infante for fine video design. They all add greatly to the enjoyment of the brass, the soul that is Memphis. Last, but hardly least, Joe DiPietro has written a tight, taut story that never loses its focus, and David Bryan a sensational musical score, which in its originality, contains all the right ingredients of r and b and rock and roll that were the 50s. A great memorable line from the show describes rock as merely Negro blues sped up.
Great, great show! Another feather in MTW's cap!
(photo credit: Caught in the Moment Photography)