Monday, August 17, 2015

Theater Review: Memphis -- Ivoryton

Renee Jackson and cast. Photo courtesy of Roger Williams.

Ivoryton Spins Another Hit with Memphis
By Lauren Yarger
The early days of rock and roll, racial tension in the 1950s south and a love story (put in a clear and humorous book by Joe DiPietro) along with a bouncy score written by former Bon Jovi keyboardest David Bryan drive an excellent production of Memphis at Ivoryton Playhouse.

Todd Underwood directs and choreographs the 2010 Tony-Award winning musical. (He choreographed La Cage aux Folles and Dreamgirls at the Playhouse.) Underwood has assembled an outstanding ensemble, led by Carson Higgins and Rénee Jackson, with very strong supporting performances by Teren Carter, Melodie Wolford, David Robbins and Jamal Shuriah. He puts them through their paces and neatly pulls the action together on Martin Scott Marchitto’s set.

The action takes place at the dawn of rock and roll, when Perry Como (Michael Sullivan) and others dominate the radio waves.  Huey Calhoun (Higgins) is a never-do-well department salesman who can’t find his niche. He takes refuge in the sounds of the rhythm and blues of black clubs in the city.  like the one owned by Delray (Carter), featuring the vocal talents of his sister, Felicia Farrell (Jackson). There he becomes friends with singing talent Bobbie Dupree (Robbins) and Gator (Jamal Shuriah), who hasn’t spoken since seeing his father lynched in front of him when he was a boy. Let’s just say that when he does lend a voice, it’s worth listening to both for its message and vocal quality.

When Huey realizes that he’s not the only white person who enjoys this type of music, he spins some “black” records at the department store and launches his career as a radio disc jockey. Station owner Mr. Simmons (Beau Allen) is a bit hesitant at first, but when ratings go through the roof, Huey soon finds himself number one on the Memphis dial. Shouting his trademark “huckado!,” the free- spirited man with bad taste in clothes (Elizabeth Cipollina provides the Costume and Wig Design) finally loves what he does – but something else too.

Huey loves Felicia, who dreams of making it big as a singer and urges Huey to come to New York with her where their romance might be accepted. Huey’s mother, Gladys (
Melodie Wolford) opposes the match, as does Delray. Some of the musical’s finest moments come in the interaction between him and Huey as the men take stands for what they believe in while sharing mutual respect. The couple decides to keep their interracial romance, sure to be a powder keg in the midst of civil rights unrest, a secret, though Huey believes Memphis will embrace it as they have him. Eventually, he discovers he's wrong.

An excellent nine-man orchestra, directed by Michael Morris, plays upstage and has the audience toe tapping along to tunes including “The Music of My Soul,” “Everybody Wants to Be Black on Saturday Night,” "Someday,” Love Will Stand,” Memphis Lives in Me” and “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll.” have the audience bopping along. Memphis is one of those rare shows where each song stands on its own and there is enough variety between ballad and hop to keep it interesting before the humor-laced script by Ivoryton favorite DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, All Shook Up, The Toxic Avenger, Nice Work if You Can Get it).

This was a rare treat for me, one of the few times I put my notepad down and just enjoy. The only glitches of the evening were some consistent problems with feedback (Sound Design by Tate R. Burmeister) and costumes (design by Elizabeth Cipollina who also does wigs) that seemed to have static-electricity issues.

Memphis plays a sweet tune through Aug. 30 at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.  There will be two additional Saturday matinees on Aug. 22 and 29 at 2 pm.  Tickets are $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children. (860) 767-7318;

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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