BWW Review: MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL at The Forum Theatre Company, Wichita's Hottest Ticket in Town
Located at 330 N. Broadway inside First United Methodist Church is the Forum Theatre Company. Under artistic director Kathryn Page Hauptman, her current production of Memphis The Musical is nothing short of being truly incredible earning her a firm reputation of being a convincing story telling director. Taking place in Memphis, Tennessee during the 1950's among a racially divided south, the show depicts exactly what the city is best known for: being the birthplace of rock n' roll. With a well-rounded, talented cast, stunning lightning and set design plus rocking choreography, this show will captivate you from start to finish drawing anyone in our own city looking for quality, music theatre entertainment next to Broadway. The show runs September 26th through October 13th with an added performance under permission of Theatrical Rights Worldwide.
The set, designed by Ben Juhnke and Levi Hillman, is a standard box set, carefully thought out due to space having two levels mainly facing the proscenium stretch and painted in a way to intertwine multiple scenes and locations. It also had a few miscellaneous pieces rolling on and off stage from time to time. For instance, at the top of show, there was a rolling platform with a painted guitar and microphone begging to be used centerstage. After the 1950s pre-show music concluded over the overhead speakers and the lights dimmed, the show began with a rousing opener called "Underground" delivered powerfully right off the bat by a wonderful, African American ensemble at a secret, underground hangout for 'colored' people. With the first few soaring, belting notes sung by Michael Karraker (Huey Calhoun) and Anjelica McRae Breathett (Felicia Farrell) from that exact centerstage meteor microphone, the audience collectively and instantly knew, 'we have a show on our hands, we better pay attention and we are going to get our money's worth tonight.'
Michael Karraker's character Huey Calhoun is slightly based off of Dewey Phillips, one of the first white disc jockeys to play black music on the radio. Karraker definitely did his research for the role, having a southern dialect and drawl plus a determined drive to get progressive music on the mainstream radio. His renditions of "The Music of My Soul" and "Steal Your Rock 'N Roll" are natural with good singing quality. He is also charming and believable in his acting particularly when remarking "Hockadoo" or during his romantic scenes opposite Anjelica McRae Breathett as Felicia trying to persuade her to go north to get married, where it's safer for interracial relationships. Breathett, however, not only steals the rock 'n roll in every gospel-inspired song she sings, she in fact steals the whole entire show with her Broadway worthy pipes and sassy delivery which moves the audience with her existentialist remarks and thoughts on the color of her skin specifically in numbers "Make Me Stronger" and "Colored Woman" leaving the audience completely stunned and speechless to the volume, tone, sound, and breath control coming from the mouth of this Charlotte, North Carolinian native. Breathett is worth the ticket cost alone to what is sure to be the hottest show in town this month.
In all, the show featured a cast of twenty-six including Charleen Ayers (Gladys Calhoun), Robert Barnes (Del Ray), Laurie Mulford (Clara/TV Stage Manager), Larry Hartley (Mr. Simmons Alexander Ogburn (Bobby) and Aaron Profit (Gator) just to name a few. Ayers, recent inductee to the Mary Jane Teall Hall of Fame, delivered with stage presence and song as Huey's overly concerned, prejudiced mother. I especially enjoyed her solos in "Make Me Stronger" when Huey encouraged attending a more spiritual, congregational church. Robert Barnes was haunting, scary and emotionally charged as the overbearing club owner warning against people's reactions to such a taboo and forbidden love between Calhoun and Felicia, his sister. Laurie Mulford was wonderfully charming and present during her important background scenes, especially committing to the role as TV manager pleading with the camera men to cut off the live air feed in response to a kiss exchanged between the interracial leads. Larry Hartley portrayed the demanding, fevered producer Mr. Simmons with ease. He exercised his strong theatre knowledge with great dialogue including the opportunity to exclaim being rich off of colored music being played on his station. But it was Alexander Ogburn and Aaron Profit who had lovely ensemble moments that aided in an already wonderfully paced show. Ogburn earns his solo at the top of act two called "Big Love" filling in as a last minute replacement for Felicia. It's great fun given his stature and vocal ability. Profit, on the other hand, intensely sings for the first time at the end of act one during "Say a Prayer" evoking hope and change to overcome the racial boundary. With two sets of trios of both male and female backup singers in addition to a strong singing and dancing ensemble, there is not one single performer who is weak. The ensemble sounds wonderful throughout including for "Memphis Lives in Me."Collectively, everyone puts forth the effort to put on a great show and it shows.
Technical achievements start with Wichitan and Avila University graduate Gigi Gans who executed clean, music theatre choreography. Her style is definitely the standard for music theatre professionalism and dancing, and she sets the bar for this production. With partner work, shimmies, monkeys, twists and turns, I certainly felt the urge to stand up and dance along with the rest of the cast. Special recognition goes to dance captain Timothy Portwood for not only taking the choreography given to him by Gans, but also heightening the movement with great dynamics and vigor. Lighting, also designed by Juhnke, allowed scene transitions to operate smoothly pulling focus more downstage while set changes occurred behind. The lights also would blackout appropriately to musical buttons adding value to the musical presentation and style. Finally, it is worth noting yet again the strong musical direction by Breathett. The sound coming from the ensemble was in tune and displayed both riffing and ranges among the cast especially during solos.
Folks, a review alone cannot convey or depict the experience I simply had by attending this musical. You will have to go for yourself and take with you a thinking cap for the themes of racial prejudice which existed then and exist now. Winner of the 2010 Tony Award for Best New Musical, the anthems which were written by David Bryan still ring true today along with melodies that will get stuck in your head.
Up next, the Forum Theatre Company presents an Evening of Ella Fitzgerald starring that new star in town, Anjelica McRae Breathett. Taking place at the Hyatt Regency downtown, this will be a benefit fundraiser for the theatre with dancing, dinner, and entertainment. Later in December, the company will then present their bi-annual tradition of Christmas Carol. Hauptman promises a new set, new vocal orchestrations and a new interpretation on this Dickens classic novel. For tickets, be sure to call early at 316.618.0444. As always, holiday shows fill up quickly in Wichita and you will not want to miss this Wichita Tradition!
The cast of Memphis the Musical at the Forum Theatre Company. Running September 26th through October 13th.
Anjelica McRae Breathett (Felicia Farrell) during the opening number "Underground" at Memphis the Musical at The Forum Theatre Company.
Anjelica McRae Breathett (Felicia Farrell) and Michael Karraker (Huey Calhoun) discuss moving up north to get married and further their musical careers in New York City.