Through Sun 7/1
The 1950s was a period of racial stress in much of the south: lynchings, school segregation, separate lunch counters and drinking fountains, blacks to the back of the bus, laws against black and white mixing. Even separate black and white radio stations was the custom, as were black and white musical styles. Patty Page, Perry Como and “nice music” was the white style. Rock and roll was for blacks.
Memphis, Tennessee was no exception. That was until “Huey Calhoun,” a somewhat slow, naïve and black music-loving white disc jockey popped onto the Memphis scene. (The show is loosely based on real-life Dewey Phillips.)
One night, Huey, who coined the non-defined word “Hockadoo!,” wandered into an underground black rock and roll bar. He was probably the first white man, other than the police looking to collect payoffs, to invade the premises. The patrons made for the exits, suspicious of Huey’s presence. After a few more visits, the well-meaning pseudo-redneck, became convinced that the music he was being exposed to, rock and roll (Negro blues on steroids), needed to be heard by the white community.
Legend has it that Huey made a deal with a local department store owner that if he could sell five records by playing music over the store’s speakers, he could have a music sales job. Huey supposedly played a rock & roll song and sold 29 records in five minutes. Unfortunately, the store owner reneged on his deal because he was incensed at the “black” music.
Huey later conned his way into a white radio station, commandeered an on-air mike, played a rock and roll record, was about to get thrown out by Mr. Simmons, the owner, when a burst of phone calls demanding more of “that” music, took place. Simmons agreed to give him a two-week trial, and if he was successful, he’d get hired full-time. That opportunity, and his adlibbing of a beer commercial (he couldn’t read so he made up the wording), and inserting his signature “Hockadoo!,” led to Huey’s march to becoming the number one disk jockey in Memphis.
Adding to the tale is the love affair between Huey and Felicia, a black singer, her rise to fame, his decline into becoming a down-and-out, end-of-the-dial disc jockey, his prejudiced mother, Felicia’s over-protective brother, and societal laws and barriers.
Memphis is a musical by David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (lyrics and book). It played on Broadway from October 19, 2009 to August 5, 2012 and won four 2010 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Musical selections include “Music of My Soul,” “Scratch My Itch,’ “Everyone Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night,” “Someday,” “Say A Prayer,” “Tear Down the House,” and “Love Will Stand.”
Great White Way opening night reviews stated, “An exuberant musical with classic values: catchy songs, heaping spoonsful of inspirational moments,” “It’s nice to know a new musical can actually surprise you,” and “I guarantee you a rambunctious good time.”
The Cain Park version, under the adept direction of Joanna May Cullinan, choreographer Leillani Barrett and music director Jordan Cooper is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. The high-energy cast is generally excellent. The singing is strong, and though the choreography often challenges some of the dancers, the over-all effect is very positive.
The Cain Park production is blessed with two dynamic lead performers. Though he is a little over the top on selling the character’s eccentricity at the start, Douglas F. Bailey II soon settles into a realistic pattern and develops Huey’s uniqueness. He wails with a big, on-tune voice and deserved the screaming opening night ovation during the curtain call. Nicole Sumlin is electric as Felicia. Captivating the audience with her stage presence and marvelous singing voice, she doesn’t portray Felicia, she is Felicia.
Chris Richards does a nice turn as Mr. Simmons, Elijah Dawson convinces as Bobby, Cynthia O’Connell is redneck-right as Mama.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Memphis Cain Park-style is a total delight. It’s a must-see for anyone who likes well-sung and -performed rock music, is interested in a well-conceived juke box musical and wants to relax in the Alma Theatre’s “in nature” setting. HOCKADOO!
The show runs through Sun 7/1 in the Alma Theatre in Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park. For tickets call 216-371-3000 or go to cainpark.com/.
[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]