Photo by Jeff Bellante
In ‘Memphis,’ it’s about the message
BY TARA SMITH
Hockadoo! “Memphis” has opened at The Gateway, capturing a pivotal moment in our history and culture.
It’s the 1950s. In Tennessee, Jim Crow laws are in effect and everyone still listens to the radio. Here, the action unfolds amongst the smoky, still-segregated clubs, where a goofy, lovable Huey Calhoun (Josh Canfield) falls for the forbidden: rock ‘n’ roll music and Felicia Farrell (Moeisha McGill), an up-and-coming black singer. Based loosely on real-life disc jockey Dewey Philips, Calhoun plays ‘race music’ to white teenagers via his radio show, and a cultural revolution ensues.
At surface level, “Memphis” tells the tale of rock ‘n’ roll, with high-octane dancing and a totally original soundtrack by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan. In between the rousing, joyful numbers, several potent moments serve as stark reminders of our historical reality: a daughter slapped for listening to black music, a slur rolled too easily off of a tongue, a gunshot.
This Gateway production features two talented young leads, both Equity Actors. Canfield nails Huey’s aloofness and eccentricity with prowess. Vocally, he demonstrates power that doesn’t falter, from “The Music of My Soul” to the classic, penultimate “Memphis Lives in Me.” Though their characters seem like the unlikeliest pair, Canfield with McGill as Felicia Farrell are irresistible. From the moment we first hear McGill, she wins us over, soaring through powerhouse numbers like “Colored Woman,” and tender moments like “Love Will Stand,” that showcase her vulnerability while demonstrating her vocal range, from belting to a delicate falsetto.
The two are well supported throughout. Melvin Abston is formidable on stage as Delray, Felicia’s protective older brother, who owns the nightclub. His heartfelt warning, “She’s My Sister,” is a compelling portrait of privilege: Huey may be, racially, ahead of his time, but doesn’t have to worry about his safety in the same way that Felicia and Delray do. It is delivered passionately in Abston’s booming bass.
A huge ensemble cast brings life to the stage during highlight numbers like “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night” and “Radio.” With new choreography by Gerry McIntyre and Debbie Roshe, the numbers are tight and animated, showcasing a central theme: music bridging the gap between black and white teenagers.
With direction from Dave Ruttura and costumes straight from the National Tour, Memphis is a timely piece being presented for the first time ever at The Gateway. You’ll no doubt be clapping along and tapping along to the beat, but also forced to think about this turning point, race relations, and how ‘black’ music was — and still is — appropriated for white audiences.
One of the night’s most powerful moments came when Horace V. Rogers as Gator, who up until that point hadn’t spoke a word since his father’s lynching, brought tears to the entire house with “Say a Prayer,” delivering a message of optimism as an American flag-painted backdrop fell back into place. As “Memphis” opened just days after celebrating July 4, it served as a sobering reminder that this is America, and not that long ago, either.
There’s a line somewhere in Act II about how people ‘tire’ of rebels, after Calhoun turns down a TV offer, refusing to replace black dancers with white ones for the program. The ending isn’t necessarily happy, but leaves the audience with introspection: Would we stand up to injustices around us? Would we have been as brave as Huey or Felicia?
Still, the message here is to follow your heart, and your dreams. Persist. Fight back and lead with love. After all, it will stand when all else falls.
“Memphis” runs at The Gateway through July 21. 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”).
While there is no official rating system for live theatre, “Memphis” may not be suitable for all ages. The Gateway encourages audiences to use their judgment based on age, maturity level and subject matter. For tickets and more information, visit www.thegateway.org or call 631-286-1133.
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