BWW Review: Playhouse's MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL Comes 'Home'
When Director and Co-Choreographer Jordan Nichols first saw and enjoyed MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL, he knew that he just had to stage a production in the city itself; as polished and entertaining as it was, it needed just a little something . . . "an infusion of Memphis grit." In Playhouse on the Square's powerful, pulsating production of the musical, he has achieved just that. Memphians are very proud and protective of their musical heritage, and though originators Joe DiPietro and David Bryan have not attempted to portray real persons and events, their knowledge of the early "rock and roll" era and its personalities has resulted in a satisfying approximation. Having few musical gifts outside a kazoo, I could nonetheless play "Six Degrees of Elvis Presley" with some confidence: My third cousin was Bill Black, bassist for Elvis Presley in those early days; and my first cousin's brother-in-law was cult rockabilly musician Charlie Feathers ("Tongue-tied Jill"). I remember enjoying disc jockey Dewey Phillips (on whom MEMPHIS protagonist "Huey Calhoun" is based) and his outsized personality, and anyone with any knowledge of Sun Studios and the early careers of Jerry Lee Lewis (who shocked an older generation with his marriage to a younger cousin), Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley know that these artists came from humble ("cracker," in the play) beginnings. These icons always acknowledged their debt to black gospel and blues musicians. All of that, together with racism and interracial relationships, surfaces in MEMPHIS.
Nathan McHenry's "Huey Calhoun" doesn't seem to have much going for him -- he apparently can't read, can't hold a job, and can't be reined in by his "elders" (i.e., his mother, his employer, and so forth). Yet, despite all this, he's an original -- he dresses as he wants, has the confidence to break boundaries, and, above all, responds magnetically to "The Music of My Soul." His late father may have warned him to stay away from blacks, but as Huey wrestles with those teachings, "How can people be so bad who make me feel so good?" He frequents the Beale Street night spot run by "Delray," wary of whites and overly protective of his talented sister "Felicia." Huey has discovered something great in this type of music, and he is zealously determined to share it with the world. He has also discovered something else: A deepening (and, for the times, dangerous) attraction to Felicia.
MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL is populated with colorful characters, and vocally and musically, it doesn't disappoint. Jarrad Baker is a powerful presence as "Delray," and newcomer Nikisha Williams is savvy and cautious as "Felicia," overcoming her better judgment by becoming romantically involved with Huey. Both are outstanding vocalists. Characters who, initially set in their convictions but ultimately stirred to change, include John M. Hemphill's station manager (the music ultimately brings him closer to his son), Lorraine Cotten's "Gladys" (a nice nod to Gladys Presley), and Karlos Nichols' "Gator," emotionally scarred by a racial wound (when Mr. Nichols finally expresses himself in song, it's a startling moment). There are also fine contributions by Curtis C. Jackson as "Bobby," a born entertainer relegated to janitorial work at the station, and Jonathan Christian as a Patti Page-addicted cornball disc jockey.
MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL does, in a satisfying manner, what other musicals have attempted before. In HAIRSPRAY, for instance, the Baltimore dance show hosted by "Corny Collins" becomes a testing ground for bringing the races together; and in FOOTLOOSE, "dangerous music" finally convinces an older generation that it needs to relax and bend. In fact, the importance of music as a mediator and a magnet to bring people together cannot be understated. The energetic, kinetic choreography by Mr. Nichols and Travis Bradley is infectious, and Thomas Bergstig's musical direction couldn't be better (the musicians know they have a challenge, and they meet it readily.) Add to that the strong personal story of Huey and Felicia (and the two young leads are, again, wonderful) and a satisfying (if not, perhaps, "storybook" ending), and you have a musical worthy of a standing ovation. Rebecca Y. Powell's colorful costumes are true to character and period, and Bryce Cutler's set design is nicely evocative of Beale Street. Through May 29. Photo courtesy of Playhouse on the Square.