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.

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