NY Times Review: Race and Rock ’n’ Roll in ‘Memphis’

NY Times
April 1, 2016
Aileen Jacobson

A goofy white guy who has trouble keeping a job as a stock boy finds success as a radio D.J. A gifted black singer stuck in her brother’s underground club gains mainstream recognition and a glossy new life as a star. The two share a tender, bittersweet romance. And all around them, dancers flip and kick their way through songs that evoke the early days of rock ’n’ roll: the 1950s.

It’s easy to understand, why “Memphis,” now electrifying the stage at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, won four Tony Awards, including best musical, in 2010 and stayed on Broadway for nearly three years. It’s a feel-good show with a snappy score and a book that addresses — as gently as possible — issues involving racism. It allows audience members to feel virtuous and leave happy.

Igor Goldin, the director, and Antoinette DiPietropolo, the choreographer, have gone all out to showcase the talents of their limber and exuberant cast. And the actors — moving on a sturdy set designed by DT Willis to a lively beat provided by the music director James Olmstead and his band, and outfitted by the costume designer Tristan Raines — run with it.

The character of Huey, played by Carson Higgins, is loosely based on Dewey Phillips, one of the first white D.J.s to play music by black performers. Credit Michael DeCristofaro
Carson Higgins exudes a sweet charm as Huey, the D.J., who can be both endearing and annoying. Unlike most people around him in Memphis, and in the rest of the South and beyond, he is virtually colorblind. In one number, “The Music of My Soul,” he sings about how closely he identifies with the music he hears when he visits a black-owned club. He sees no reason he shouldn’t be in the club, though the patrons are at first shocked and wary.

Soon, he finds a job at a white-owned (and thus mainstream) radio station, and a measure of fame by playing what is called “race music.” His show draws a huge audience of white teenagers. Despite his affinity for music, however, Huey is tone-deaf in failing to comprehend the consequences of openly showing his affection for Felicia, the singer who becomes his beloved, and not willing to consider Felicia’s more cautious feelings about public displays. Mr. Higgins is adept at letting Huey’s unconscious hubris show through the decent and moral sides of his rebellious views.

As Felicia, Breanna Bartley has both the rich voice and, just as important, the warmth needed for her role. She sings with a heartfelt directness— as in “Colored Woman,” a declaration about breaking free of limits and following dreams — and she convinces us that she really likes, and then loves, the awkward and often childlike Huey.

Felicia, played by Breanna Bartley, is a gifted singer who falls in love with Huey. Credit Michael DeCristofaro
Surrounding them are other fine performers, including the strong-voiced C. Mingo Long as Delray, Felicia’s protective older brother; Arthur L. Ross as Bobby, a janitor at Huey’s radio station who later becomes a singing sensation; and Kathryn Markey as Gladys, Huey’s mother, who starts out a bigot but later softens her stand. Ms. Markey is the only actor who consistently retains a Southern accent, even when she sings, with an apt country music twang. Actors in smaller roles and in the chorus also shine.

Still, there is a whiff of condescension in “Memphis,” even as it righteously highlights important moments in history — like the “stealing” of black music, mainly rhythm and blues, by a white music establishment. Couldn’t one say that this is what is happening here? The musical, written by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics), is absolutely well-intentioned and follows in a long and largely respected tradition of white guys — as the musical’s creators are — writing about discrimination against minorities. “Show Boat,” “West Side Story,” and “Hairspray” come to mind.

The character of Huey is loosely based on Dewey Phillips, one of the first white D.J.s to play music by black performers, though probably more famous as the first D.J. to spin a record by Elvis Presley — who borrowed a tune or two from black artists.

Perhaps partly because of the recent focus on racism in America, the white perspective in the musical can sometimes bring discomfort. The lyrics of “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night,” an entire-cast blowout number, seem to assume that “everybody” means white people. (The premise is also doubtful for 1950s Tennessee.) To the creators’ credit, they do have Felicia point out to Huey that while he has a choice of when to be seen as “black,” or at least pro-black, she doesn’t. And then they sing another rousing song.

“Memphis” continues through May 8 at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, 250 Main Street. Information: 631-261-2900 or engemantheater.com.

Long Island Press Review: A Riveting ‘Memphis’ Opens at Northport’s Engeman Theater

Long Island Press
April 1, 2016
Elise Pearlman

The multiple award-winning musical, ‘Memphis,’ which opened last week at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater, is the rare musical that showcases spectacular singing and dancing while boasting a storyline and characters so engaging that they stir your innermost sensibilities. Memphis is that rare breed of musical and I was riveted to the stage from the onset.

The winner of four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Memphis features the book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, of ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’ fame, with music and lyrics by David Bryan, a founding member of Bon Jovi.

Set in Memphis, Tenn., the musical draws the audience into the black underground dance clubs of the1950s. The story is loosely based on the real-life escapades of Dewey Phillips, a pioneering white DJ who was one of the first to see the allure of black music and boldly play it on Memphis radio.

Huey Calhoun (played by Carson Higgins) is a high school drop-out who has trouble holding down even a menial job. He finds his field of dreams when an intoxicating medley of rock n’ roll, rhythm and blues draws him into a world that he has never known. Although he is the only white person in the underground joint beneath Beale Street and the black clubbers are not thrilled with his intrusion, Huey cannot help, but declare (in song, of course) that this is the “Music of My Soul.”

It is there that his path serendipitously crosses with Felicia Farrell (Breanna Bartley), an astoundingly talented singer whose career is constrained by intolerant times. Huey, clearly smitten with Felicia, is determined to take this music mainstream and get her voice heard—not an easy task as this genre of music is referred to as “race” or “colored” music, and not viewed as appropriate for God-fearing white Christians. But Huey, who dreams big, is not about to be derailed and soon commandeers a radio station when the disc jockey takes a break. The station’s owner’s fury is soon diminished by the deluge of phone calls asking for more. In short order the station is voted No. 1.

Songs like “Scratch My Itch” and “Everyone Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night” will have your toes tapping. Yet other songs resonate with a poignancy that tugs on your heartstrings. In “Colored Woman,” Felicia recalls her mother’s warning that her success will be limited in a light-skinned world. Yet the feisty singer summons up her courage to defy the status quo. While Felicia, her brother/club owner Delray (C. Mingo Long) and their crew explore electrifying artistic freedom within the sheltered confines of the club, outside they have reason to be afraid. They are continuously kept in line and belittled by racist remarks and harbor horrifying memories. Gator (Jarred Bedgood), the bartender, has not spoken since he saw his father lynched as child; Delray bears a mark on his neck which he sustained as a thirsty 14-year-old who dared to drink from a whites-only water fountain.

If the effort to break the racist glass ceiling of the Southern music industry is not enough, Felicia and Huey have fallen for each other. Can this unorthodox love affair survive and what impact will it have on their careers?

There are so many wonderful songs that I am hard-pressed to pick my favorites. In Act II. I particularly liked “Tear Down the House” and “Memphis Lives in Me,” both sung by Huey and Company. I was dazzled by the finale “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll. Sung by Huey, Felicia and Company, its message is about never losing sight of your personal vision. It had the audience on its feet and clapping. What a grand finale indeed!

Higgins, who plays the extraordinarily likeable colorblind idealist whose enthusiasm for music is contagious, has made an astounding debut at the Engeman Theater where he sings and dances with the best of them. Featured on Season 10 of American Idol, he says that Huey Calhoun is his favorite role, and one he has played before at Connecticut’s Ivoryton Playhouse.

The chemistry between Bartley and Higgins rings true and makes for a believable love story. An extremely gifted vocalist with a powerhouse of a voice whose credits include ‘Dreamgirls,’ Bartley has the versatility to render both high energy, upbeat songs and more tender ballads to perfection.

C. Mingo Long excels as Felicia’s rightfully protective brother and makes his point with his deliciously deep voice in “She’s My Sister.”

Some of my other favorite characters include Gator (Jarred Bedgood), Gladys (Calhoun’s mother played by Kathryn Markey), and Bobby (Arthur L. Ross), all of whom will take the spotlight and undergo startling transformations that will lift your spirit.

Kudos to Wojcik/Seay casting for assembling this stellar cast. The award-winning Igor Goldin, who has directed some of Engeman’s finest productions, is once again at the helm and his work is impeccable. Major kudos to Antoinette DiPietropolo who has choreographed the musical to perfection. These dancers do not miss a beat and dance and fight captains, Ivory McKay and Carson Higgens, are also to be complimented. Musical Director James Olmstead has once again outdone himself. DT Willis is to be complimented on his set which undergoes some amazing metamorphoses during the course of the production. Tristan Raines’ costumes are pure eye candy.

Memphis runs through May 8, but buy tickets early as show might very well sell out. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by calling 261-2900 or visiting engemantheater.com

Read online at: www.longislandpress.com/2016/04/01/a-riveting-memphis-opens-at-northports-engeman-theater/

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