Memphis Opened this past weekend at Artistry Theater in Bloomington, this is the regional premiere of the musical which won 4 Tony Awards including Best Musical in 2010. It’s my first exposure to the show and I went in with very little beforehand knowledge. Whatever expectations I went in with, have been exceeded. Memphis is a fictionalized history lesson about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in memphis in the 1950’s. The show has music and lyrics by David Bryan of the rock band Bon Jovi with book and lyrics by Joe Dipietro. One of the things I loved about this show were the period sounding original songs. In that respect, it reminded me of the underrated Allison Anders film Grace of My Heart, which does something similar with the singer songwriters of New York’s Brill Building in the 1960’s. Although a fiction, it’s loosely based on real events and while it has great music and plenty of humor, it doesn’t ignore the social realities of the 1950’s in the Southern United States. Many of the characters are black and this doesn’t shy away from the language of the time. Race is as much a part of this story as music is. This would be a nice jumping off point for parents of teenagers to discuss how things used to be verses how history is written by those in power. As director of Memphis Aimee K. Bryant points out in her program note, many credit Elvis Presley with inventing rock ‘n’ roll, but he learned it from the black musicians on Beale Street in Memphis. Bryant further points out that the play does the same thing, it credits DJ Huey Calhoun with the music taking off, rather than the people who created the music. There is a lot to unpack and discuss with children old enough to understand the use of certain words and phrases in an historical context.
This is the story: Huey Calhoun who seems lost, especially to the patrons in the bar he enters at the beginning of the show. Huey loves the music he hears in the bars and clubs in the areas of town where white men like himself don’t usually go. He hears the owner of the bars sister Felicia singing and proclaims in song that this is “The Music of My Soul”. Huey vows to make Felicia a star, even though he can hardly hold down a job. He convinces his boss at the department store he works at to let him play records over the store speakers in order to sell records. He makes a success of it but is fired anyway because he is playing “inappropriate music”. Huey then sneaks his way into a DJ booth at a radio station and plays some of his own records. Before they can throw him out of the station the phones start ringing off the hook with everyone asking for more of Huey Calhoun. His popularity grows, culminating in his own TV program. Along the way he begins to woo Felicia, much to her brother Delray and his Mother’s dismay. We get a view of history through the eyes of the people we come to care about in the story, we also see how music can bring people together. There is a nice little scene in the middle of the play where we see people getting excited about Calhoun’s show and “his” music. In addition, we see black teenagers and white teachers begin to mingle a little over their shared love of the music.
The cast is stacked top to bottom with stellar performers. Matt Riehle demonstrates a superb voice backed up by a winning performance as the idealistic and color blind, Huey Calhoun. Everyone in the play seems to understand the reality of the time in place in terms of race but Huey. This could have come off as unfathomable, but Riehle sells Huey’s naivete through his idealism. Vie Boheme as Felicia is his match both vocally and in acting. She knows the world and tries and keep Huey from having unrealistic beliefs. Boheme has us feeling with her the frustration in getting him to tone down his expectations and make sensible choices but also when she gets carried away by his optimism. Those two alone would make for a show worth attending, but they are also surrounded by so much talent, one hardly knows where to start unless you are going to run through the entire cast. Dante Banks Murray as Delray and Wendy Short-Hays as Mama Calhoun are standouts as well as is Rudolph Searles III as Bobby Dupree who Huey meets at Delray’s bar and later at the radio station where he works as a janitor only to end up singing on Huey’s TV show. Fun character work from Jay Albright and Rodney Patrick Fair in multiple roles and Carl Swanson at the owner of the radio station. Final mention of Emily Madigan as Gator, this is the third time this month I’ve attended a production that features woman or a non-binary performer in the role of a male character. In each instance it has been my sense that there was no intended comment on the work in such casting. In all three, I thought the casting was spot on and Madigan was perfect. I hope we continue to see casting along these lines which is to say, casting the person whose talents are the best match the role.
Aimee K. Bryant brings everything together with an energy that matches Huey Calhoun’s enthusiasm, which is no small feet. She does a wonderful job of producing a show that doesn’t shy away from some difficult subject matters but also doesn’t get bogged down in them. We still have an enjoyable entertainment, but one we talk and think about as well. A tricky balance no doubt but Bryant walked that tight rope and made it look easy. She’s got a terrific group of collaborators as well in Leah Nelson’s Choreography and Ginger Commodore’s music direction. When I saw stills of the Set Design by Michael Hoover and lit by Lighting Designer Kyia Britts, I wasn’t too impressed, but in the actual production I loved it. I thought the use of different levels whether we are at the DJ booth on the mid-side level or walking down the street on the upper level, created a well defined sense of place. In a moment when Huey and Felicia are at their highest, placing them on that upper level was a nice visual representation of where the characters were at emotionally.
Memphis runs through May 15th at Artistry for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://artistrymn.org/
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