Chicago Reviews

Brilliant Acting, Singing and Staging Bring “Memphis” to Chicago

Four Stars

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; technical issues are currently preventing me from uploading photos, but I will do so as soon as I can.

I’m finding it increasingly difficult to start reviews lately. See, the thing is that I have been fortunate enough to sign myself up for a spate of new productions, many of which have been exciting and brilliantly done. They have featured inventive and powerful direction, outstanding technical support, and acting that will knock your socks off. So I am starting to feel that I should just have a template to review such shows; plug in the unique names and life is great. I’m sure that this streak will be broken one of these days, but not today. All of these qualities can be found in the new Porchlight Theatre production of the 2010 Tony Award-winning musical Memphis, a show that is at once wonderfully entertaining and serious in its topic, two characteristics that in less deft hands would be daunting on the same stage but in the hands of director Daryl Brooks becomes almost a revelation.

Memphis is based on a true story of a 1950s DJ (in Memphis of course) named Dewey Phillips (here reinvented as a young man name Huey Calhoun), the first white radio personality to play what was then called “race music” for his mostly white audience. Phillips doesn’t get the credit he undoubtedly deserves from history (Alan Freed is usually cited when the history of rock and roll is discussed), but what he accomplished was momentous: he single-handed lay crashed through the harsh racial divide of his era and turned his young listeners on to rock (which the musical pointedly reminds us is just a faster version of the music blacks had been listening to and playing for decades).

Huey Calhoun (played by the outstanding Liam Quealy) is a brash, illiterate young man who knows what he likes and expects the world to like it as well. He stumbles into a Beale Street club run by Delray Jones (Lorenzo Rush, Jr. in a powerful performance) as a showcase for his talented sister Felicia Farrell (a star making performance by Aeriel Williams) and is mesmerized by what he refers to unabashedly as the “music of my soul.” Of course, being a white boy, he is at first unwanted in this all-black environment, but his sheer energy and chutzpah breaks the ice and he quickly becomes a fixture, promising Felicia (with whom he falls in love) to play her music on the radio “in the middle of the dial,” the most desirable spot for any radio station. The boldness of this prediction is emphasized by the fact that he doesn’t eve have a job when he makes it, let alone as a DJ. But such is his determination that he quickly finds one and puts himself in position to make Felicia’s dream come true.

This is not the first time I’ve seen Memphis, but it is the first time it has thoroughly worked for me, a credit to its stars as well as Brooks and choreographer Christopher Carter, whose energetic dance numbers evoke the enthusiasm of young people of that era that we see highlighted in such places as the sock hop in West Side Story, another show about racial tension but one that is much more serious, and Hairspray, set in 1960 Baltimore, a show that also involves controversy when blacks meet with whites to celebrate music. Brooks here uses his talented cast (which also includes Gilbert Domally as Gator, the mute-by-choice bartender who eventually brings everyone together; Nancy Wagner as Huey’s mother, torn by her love of her faith and her son’s increasing love for Felicia; and James Earl Jones, Jr. as Bobby, the janitor that Huey turns into a TV star, among a huge list of others that seems almost as long as the cast list for Avengers: Infinity War) generously, showcasing not only the leads but many of the minor payers as well in small, lovely moments such as the lovely scene in which one white girl meekly enters Reverend Hobson’s (Jared David Michael Grant) black church at the urging of Huey, a scene that turns into an energetic in-the-audience’s-face scene that brings us right into the church along with her.

The performances that Brooks gets from the lead players is nothing short of amazing. Both Williams and Quealy have several outstanding moments. Williams’ “Colored Woman” and “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls” are compelling emotional moments, as is Quealy’s ode to his hometown, “Memphis Lives in Me,” and Quealy is also give ample chances to accentuate his high-octane performance skills in songs like “Crazy Little Huey.” Rush’s “She’s My Sister” is an impassioned defense of his apparent instinct to shield Felicia from any potential harm out of his intense love for his only blood relative. Domally’s “Say a Prayer” is a beautiful plea for tolerance and understanding. Jones’s “Big Love” is an animated, high-powered explosion from a character who has until then been largely under wraps. These and many other wonderful moments were clearly crafted by gifted actors in tandem with a gifted director.

The show, though, has a strong undercurrent of racial tension and violence that is more Ragtime than Hairspray, and Brooks is not shy about depicting it. One harrowing scene in which white hoodlums beat Huey and Felicia is hard to watch despite the clearly “staged” nature of what is depicted. And the menace of white hatred is a shadow over all of the hilarious joy in the show. We know that Huey ultimately can’t succeed in his quixotic mission. It’s Memphis in the 50s, smack in the middle of the Jim Crow era, and it would be a long time before blacks and whites could mingle without controversy, let alone be in love. But we are led along by his boundless, intemperate enthusiasm for the music and his belief in the power of radio to change everything that is wrong with society.

Watching the play, I was struck by how much has changed in our society and how much has not. Obviously, strides have occurred since the 50s in race relations. But events of the last two years are proof that the ugly undercurrents are not only still around but are even having a resurgence. Memphis is a timely reminder of the idealism that led to change in the first place and the hope that we can still overcome our demons to allow the better angels of our nature to emerge victorious. It is a glorious, outstanding production that should not be missed by anyone who loves musicals.

Memphis is a Porchlight Music Theatre production now playing at Ruth Page Theatre through June 10. Times vary, so you’d best check the website. Tickets can be purchased from Porchlight Music Theatre.

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