Todd Adamson gives one of the year’s truly great performances as DJ Huey Calhoun opposite a sensational SoCal-debuting Lakeisha Renee Houston as star-to-be Felicia Farrell in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Regional Premiere of Memphis, the fact-inspired tale of a Tennessee disc jockey who made history by daring to play “race music” on white radio back in the still-segregated 1950s.
DJ Huey Calhoun’s particularly groundbreaking step, and his then illegal romance with a young singer he meets on his first visit to a “colored” nightclub, are at the heart of one of the most powerful—and most tunefully exuberant—musicals New York and the rest of the world have seen in many a year.
Not only did Memphis win the Tony as Best Musical of 2010, it scored additional statuettes for Joe DiPietro’s book (based on a concept by George W. George) and for David Bryan and DiPietro’s songs, spent nearly three years on Broadway, inspired a major National Tour, and has just opened on London’s West End—all of which give Cabrillo’s Regional Premiere true event status.
Memphis The Musical benefits from one of the most infectious R&B scores ever heard on a Broadway stage (and one of the most infectiously charismatic leading men ever) in addition to providing a much-needed history lesson in where we were back in the Jim Crow days of legally-mandated discrimination and reminding us in light of recent events of how far we still have to go.
That Memphis does so without an iota of preaching (and nary a dull moment from start to finish) makes it a show that ought to be as frequent an addition to a musical theater season as any of those old chestnuts we’ve seen again and again and again.
There’s certainly never been a lead character quite like the exuberant bundle of joie de vivre that is Huey, an illiterate high school dropout blessed with not an iota of racial prejudice in his lithe and limber body, whose excitement at discovering “the music of my soul” leads him from a short-lived job selling rock ‘n’ roll records at a local department store to becoming Memphis’s most popular radio DJ in record time.
Along the way, Huey falls for aspiring R&B songstress Felicia, whose brother Delray (Keith Jefferson) runs the nightclub where Huey discovers both soul music and soul mate.
Not surprisingly, Delray finds himself ill-inclined to see his sister involved in an interracial romance. Neither is Huey’s mother Gladys (Linda Kerns) any less displeased, but Huey is as blind to her disapproval as he is to Felicia’s color.
Before long, the couple are lovers, forced to meet in secret by a society in which a single kiss, if seen by the wrong people, could lead to a bashing, and quite possibly worse.
If this past spring’s In The Heights was “one of finest Cabrillo Music Theatre productions ever” (a quote from my review), Memphis goes In The Heights one better, since rather than give audiences a virtual carbon copy of the Broadway original, Cabrillo has taken the almost unprecedented step of staging Memphis “from the ground up,” and that means a terrific, entirely new production design, one that future regional productions would be wise to take advantage of, and entirely new (and absolutely sensational) choreography by Kenna Morris Garcia.
Even without Garcia’s show-stopping choreography and Bryan and DiPietro’s soul-infused songs Memphis would make for a compelling period drama. With them, it is elevated to the status of instant musical theater classic, one which entertains, moves, and educates, with a definite emphasis on the former, thanks to DiPietro’s Tony-winning book and especially this time round to Thousand Oaks native Robert W. Schneider’s nuanced yet pizzazzy direction.
Perhaps even more importantly, director Schneider, choreographer Garcia, and musical director Cassie Nickols have managed with a mere three Equity contracts to come up with a cast that rivals any you’d see on Broadway or in an all-Equity National Tour.
As Huey (loosely based on real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips), the supremely charismatic Adamson gives as exciting, uninhibited, engaging, joyous, and stand-up-and-cheer performance as you will see this or any year. (Can you say, “A Star Is Born”?)
Opposite him, freshly arrived Texas State University grad Houston does gutsy, gorgeous work as Felicia, and mark my words, Memphis is just the start of a long and thriving career for this L.A. newcomer.
Together, Adamson and Houston ignite such romantic, sexual sparks onstage that a call to the Thousand Oaks Fire Department may be in order.
Jefferson gives audiences a dynamic, heartfelt Delray (and opens the show with a soulful “Underground”), and the same can be said for Eran Scoggins’s Bobby (the radio station janitor who gets his own great big showstopper “Big Love”) and Brandon Michael Fleming as Gator, mute since his father’s lynching, who finds his voice in the stirring Act One finale “Say A Prayer.”
L.A. theater treasure Kerns brings to life a deeply felt, vocally resonant Gladys who could teach us all a lesson about how love can trump even the most ingrained prejudice, Michael Naishtut makes for a fine and feisty Mr. Simmons (the radio station owner who gives Huey his big break), and Ronald Rezac is a delight in multiple cameos (White DJ, Buck Wiley, Martin Holton).
Ensemble members Darian Troy Archie, Dayna Alice Austin, Kylie Brunngraber, Justin Cowden (Perry Como), Cedric Dodd, Ceanté Harris, Ceron Jones (Reverent Hobson), Darina Littleton, Robert Love, Shanta’ Marie, Kamahl Naiqui (Wailin’ Joe), Megan Nichols (Ethel), J.T. Saxton, Coleton Schmitto, Molly Stilliens (Clara), Jimmy Stuart, Dylan F. Thomas (Mr. Collins), and Katherine Washington prove themselves quintessential triple-threats in a variety of high energy song-and-dance tracks.
As for Memphis’s brand spanking new production design, highest praise is in order for Stephen Gifford’s sensational sets, Mela Hoyt-Heydon’s pitch-perfect period costumes, Christina L. Munich’s dazzling lighting, and Jonathan Burke’s crystal clear sound design, with additional kudos due Christine Gibson (wardrobe supervisor), Cassie Russek (hair/makeup design), Alex Choate (prop designer), Gary Mintz (technical director), and Char Brewster (crew captain).
Darrell Alston plays keyboards while conducting the production’s thrilling Memphis band, which also features musical director par excellence Nickols on keyboards performing Daryl Waters’ and composer Bryan’s Tony-winning orchestrations.
Andrew Karl is assistant director. Keenon Hooks is assistant choreographer. Cate Cundiff is production stage manager and Jenny Brum assistant stage manager.
Perhaps the best news about Memphis’s arrival in Thousand Oaks is that it marks the start of a Cabrillo Music Theatre season seriously in jeopardy only a few months back.
A jam-packed Fred Kavli Theatre (the most crowded I can ever recall it on an Opening Night), a program filled with new sponsors and for the first time ever, not just headshot for the entire cast but in color no less, and the standing ovation that greeted the gifted ensemble at last night’s curtain calls forecast exciting things ahead for a freshly revitalized Cabrillo.
In the meantime there is Memphis, in town for a mere two weekends. In other words, you’ve got (as of this writing) today, tomorrow, and next Thursday through Sunday to get yourself up to Thousand Oaks for as thrilling and entertaining a show as Broadway—and Cabrillo Music Theatre—have offered in years.
Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.
November 14, 2014
Photos: Ed Krieger