‘Memphis’ to be staged at Gateway
At surface level, “Memphis” tells the tale of rock ‘n’ roll. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a darker story, one about race, a cultural turning point — and the appropriation of black music and culture — for white audiences.
“I love the music and the message,” said Moeisha McGill, who will lead as aspiring singer Felicia Farrell. “It’s timely, too,” she continued, pausing from applying her eye makeup to contemplate what that statement truly means. “Terrifyingly timely,” added her co-star Josh Canfield, who will take the stage as progressive deejay Huey Calhoun. The Advance caught up with the pair ahead of a promotional photo shoot at the Gateway earlier this month.
Set in Memphis in the 1950s, the action unfolds in the smoky, seedy, still-segregated clubs where Huey Calhoun falls for the forbidden: rock and roll music and Felicia, a talented black singer. Based loosely on real-life disc jockey Dewey Philips, Calhoun introduces black music to white teenagers via his radio show, and a cultural revolution ensues.
The dancing is high-octane, and the original soundtrack captures the era with the likes of James Brown, Chuck Berry and the Temptations. David Ruttura will direct this Gateway production; he currently serves as associate director of “School of Rock” on Broadway and on tour.
Fresh off of a Broadway run in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” Canfield returns to the Gateway, previously cast in 2016’s “Anything Goes” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” He caught “Memphis” during its national tour five years ago in Pittsburgh. “I just fell in love with the show and Huey’s character. It’s a challenging role,” he said, adding that he penciled it in on his mental ‘dream roles’ list. “And here I am, about to cross it off.”
Huey, as Canfield describes him, is wonderfully aloof. “He’s this guy who’s kind of a fish out of water in every sense,” he said. “He doesn’t fit in with the white folks, he doesn’t fit in with the black folks. But he doesn’t care.”
“Memphis” marks a return to the Gateway for McGill, who appeared in 2017 productions of “Rent” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” Several numbers from “Memphis” — “Colored Woman” and “Someday,” to name two — appear in McGill’s audition repertoire. “I actually auditioned for the show on Broadway,” she said, but was turned away by directors because her energy was “too young.” She’s thrilled to be portraying Felicia in the Gateway premiere. “I can’t wait to dig in [to the character]. It’s a good message for this climate — a lead with a love message. It’s what we need right now,” she said.
For both actors, “Memphis” will be their third production at the Gateway — a home away from Broadway. “It’s a great getaway,” McGill admitted, adding that Gateway allows actors the creative space to experiment “without extreme scrutiny.” She and Canfield agree that the community of actors each season is what makes the Gateway a venerable institution of summer theater. “It takes a lot longer to get a sense of community in a Broadway show,” Canfield observed. “Because you go home to your boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, dog — your normal life. Here, you don’t have that option. So you start getting to know people in a closer way. And that translates on stage,” he added.
They don’t have much time, either. Rehearsals start this week for “Memphis,” which opens July 5. In between running lines, learning choreography, getting into character, McGill is tasked with making the show relevant to an audience in 2018. She’s thinking a lot about the bravery, too, of the real-life relationships that inspired these characters. “Relationships are hard enough in modern times,” she said. “Imagine having to add on to it the layer of pressure from society and not being able to be with the person you love? I can’t even imagine.”
“Memphis” opens at the Gateway on July 5. The show’s Tony Award-winning score features original music by Bon Jovi’s founding member and keyboardist David Bryan and lyrics by Bryan and Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”).
For tickets and more information, visit www.thegateway.org or call 631-286-1133.
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