Musical Theatre West looks to have yet another sold-out smash on its hands with Memphis The Musical, one of the most powerful, tuneful, exuberant shows New York and the rest of the world have seen in years.
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, Memphis The Musical not only features an absolutely infectious R&B score (music by David Bryan, lyrics by Bryan and Joe DiPietro), DiPietro’s absorbing, entertaining book (based on a concept by George W. George) provides a much-needed history lesson in the Jim Crow days of legally-mandated discrimination.
There’s certainly never been a lead character quite like the exuberant bundle of joie de vivre that is Huey (Michael Monroe Goodman), an illiterate high school dropout blessed with not an iota of racial prejudice in his 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 (loosely based on real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips) falls for aspiring R&B songstress Felicia (Krystle Simmons), whose big brother Delray (Michael A. Shepperd) 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 (Julie Cardia) 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.
Even without director-choreographer Edgar Godineaux’s show-stopping dances and Bryan and DiPietro’s soul-infused songs, Memphis would make for riveting period drama. With them, it is elevated to the status of instant musical theater classic, one which educates, moves, and entertains, with a definite emphasis on the latter.
Under Godineaux’s razor-sharp direction, Goodman makes an electrifying MTW debut as Huey, equal parts showmanship and heart opposite Simmons’ equally fabulous Felicia, a pair of vocal stunners with acting chops to match.
The engaging Jay Donnell’s radio station janitor Bobby earns deserved cheers for his “Big Love” and Kenneth Mosley’s compelling Gator, mute since his father’s lynching, finds his voice in the stirring Act One finale “Say A Prayer.”
James Campbell provides crackerjack support as Mr. Simmons,the radio station owner who gives Huey his big break.
Ensemble members Justin Badding, Nirine S. Brown, Kaeli Carr, Sharon Jewell (Clara), Gabriel Kalomas (Mr. Collins), Lencia Kebede, Daniel Kermidas, Jarvis McKinley, Kristin Morris, Gabriel Navarro (Perry Como), Eric Michael Parker (Buck Wiley), Shanta’ Robinson, Matthew Sims, Jr. (Waylin’ Joe, Rev. Hobson), Marc Spaulding, Eric Whitehurst, and dance captain Kaci Wilson dazzle from start to finish in one high-energy song-and-dance after another.
Scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s Broadway-caliber set, Eric Larson’s striking lighting, Karen St Pierre’s colorful period costumes (and Alma Romero’s matching wigs), Katie Marshall’s terrific 1950s properties, and Jonathan Infante’s live B&W-TV video design give MTW’s Memphis as thoroughly professional a look as any theatergoer could wish for, and it sounds just as sensational thanks to musical director Darryl Archibald (and Audio Production Geeks, LLC).
Tyrone Jackson is assistant director/choreographer. Kelly Marie Pate is stage manager and Mary Ritenhour is assistant stage manager. Kevin Clowes is technical director.
If ever there were a time for a bring-us-together musical like Memphis, that time is most definitely now. As Huey himself might put it, Memphis The Musical at MTW is one hockadoo-doo-doozy of a show!
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
October 22, 2016
Photos: Caught In The Moment Photography