THEATER REVIEW: Memphis The Musical @ Cain Park by Laura Kennelly

Through Sun 7/1

I love it when shows remind us that the “Olden Days” were lively — even way back in the 1950s. Memphis the Musical, winner of four 2010 Tony Awards (including Best Musical) rocked (well, of course) the packed Alma Theatre last Friday at Cain Park. (It probably didn’t hurt the summer celebration mood that it was also wine-tasting night there, but I digress ….)

Memphis (book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro with music and lyrics by David Bryan) tells the story of how one Memphis DJ popularized the music he heard in black clubs via his late-night radio show. As the well-known story goes, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. all owe their inspiration to what they heard growing up in the South.

(Geography Note: At the time, the city of Memphis was ideally situated to spread black music northward — conveniently situated just north of Clarksdale, Mississippi and other small towns on the Delta Blues Trail that leads from and to New Orleans, home of the best music in the world IMHO.)

Once the DJs started playing rock and roll records, there was no stopping the trend. Director Joanna May Cullinan and music director Jordan Cooper allow the talented cast and crew to simply enjoy the music and so illustrate why white folks (and, by extension, the rest of the world) loved it.

The show’s storyline is based on the larger-than-life personality of a white radio DJ named Dewey Phillips (yes, related to Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records). He’s called Huey Calhoun in the show. Douglas F. Bailey II handles the demanding role of a person “with no boundaries” with seemingly inexhaustible energy.

(Quibble: Bailey gets the cadence right, but no self-respecting southerner from that area would ever land on the final “g” the way he does. It’s “goin’,” not “goinG.” Trust me honey on that one).

But OK, DJ Bailey admires and then recruits a black singer, the reluctant Felicia Farrell (Nicole Sumlin), to sing for a wider audience. Her reluctance is overcome by his persistence (and love). The beautiful Sumlin’s terrific Felicia sings like a powerhouse with the ensemble and touches our feelings on the love songs (“Love Will Stand”).

The most fun part of the show comes when local teens, devoted listeners to Calhoun’s late-night radio shows, start dancing. They create a demand for more and more of this “new sound” and both black and white kids groove to the new beat. At the beginning, the dozen-plus dancers sort themselves according to race, but by show’s end they’ve merged into one talent-packed joy-provoking ensemble. Choreographer Leilani Barrett makes the small stage seem larger than it is as the dancers fill every nook and cranny with movement.

Other cast members include Michael Swain-Smith as the “mute” Gator (but watch out!), Anthony Savage-Williams (as Delray, owner of the Rock ’n Roll bar), Elijah Dawson (as good-guy Bobby) and Cynthia O’Connell as Mama (who just doesn’t “get” her son).

BOTTOM LINE: Music can be a wonderful and powerful meeting place. This Cain Park show tunefully celebrates this idea.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

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