TR Robertson–“Memphis The Musical” returned to San Diego County on the Moonlight Amphitheatre stage, returning after the musicals 2009 pre-Broadway opening at La Jolla Playhouse. This Tony Award winning musical explodes on stage with a bevy of incredible voices, humor, clever staging and dance routines and thought-provoking commentary on the shameful treatment of Black Americans both in society and in the music business of the 1950’s, leading many of those seeing the musical to also think about the racial tension that exploded in America over the last several years and continues to surface in the news.
The musical was first staged in 2003 at the North Shore Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts. “Memphis” opened on Broadway in 2009 at the Shubert Theatre. It won four Tony Awards in 2010, including Best Musical and three Drama Desk Awards. Book and Lyrics are by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan based on a concept by George W. George.
“Memphis” is directed and choreographed by Jeffrey Polk, making his moonlight debut. Polk has acted, directed, and taught in numerous theatres across the U.S. In the program “Notes From the Director,” Polk alluded to the importance of music in bringing people together no matter what age, race, or color. The musicals story line is loosely based on the story of Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first DJ’s to play what was called “Race Music” or “Black Music” in the 1960’s. “Memphis The Musical” centers on Huey Calhoun, a down on his luck white Memphis native who loves the soulful R&B music of the black owned Memphis clubs and who has dreams of becoming a DJ.
Huey visits Delray’s Club and meets Felicia, Delray’s sister, and is immediately struck by her beauty and her voice. He tries to convince her if she can get a recording of herself, he can get her song played on the white owned radio stations. With a bit of conniving and trickery Huey ends up with a job at WHDZ, owned by Mr. Simmons, playing black R&B music. The kids, white and black, love the music. Along the way, Huey is falling in love with Felicia, but she is skeptical knowing romantic relationships between blacks and whites in Memphis, Tennessee, and other parts of the U.S., are not accepted by most of society in the 50’s and 60’s. But Huey cannot be stopped, which will lead to a violent encounter against Huey and Felicia. Huey’s success continues to grow, and he gets a T.V. show, making him even more popular, Huey and Felicia grow closer, but Felicia has an opportunity to sign with a record promotor and move to New York to begin a successful career which will threaten their relationship. Huey must decide what and who he loves more. His decision will affect the rest of his and Felicia’s life.
A tremendous 26-member cast presents a stellar performance with a number of standouts on stage. Janaya Mahealani Jones plays Felicia and definitely owns the stage with her soulful and powerful voice in numbers with the company, solo numbers, and songs with Bryan Banville, who plays Huey Calhoun. Songs like “Colored Woman,” “Someday,” and “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls” bring rousing audience applause. Janaya is returning to Moonlight after performing as Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 2018. Bryan Banville presents Huey with a wonderful high pitched Southern “hillbilly twang.” Huey is full of nervous energy bouncing around the stage trying to convince those that will listen that he can be something he isn’t. His eccentric dress even brings Felicia to say, “Who dresses you?” Bryan also does an outstanding job of blending his voice with Janaya and the rest of the company and especially stands out in “Memphis Lives in Me.” He is hilarious when he adlibs a beer commercial for Delta Beer on the radio knowing he cannot read the copy he was given for the commercial.
This is a talented cast with a number of additional memorable performances. Marqell Edward Clayton does not speak or sing until the final song of Act I, but when he does the audience erupts in applause as he plays Gator, the silent bartender. Tired of the bickering between Huey and Delray, Gator breaks out into a gospel number, “Say a Prayer,” with a booming baritone voice. Another great baritone voice is heard from Shaun T. Evans, who plays Felicia’s protective brother Delray, especially on the song “She’s My Sister.” Morgan Carberry plays Gladys, Huey’s mother, who initially is extremely opposed to Huey and Felicia’s relationship. As she begins to adjust to the idea, Gladys joins Delray, Gator, and Bobby in “Change Don’t Come Easy.” Kevin “Blax” Burroughs plays Bobby, one of the frequent members of Delray’s Club and is also the recipient of another rousing round of applause when he performs “Big Love” for Huey’s TV show, The Huey Calhoun Cavalcade.
The Creative Team for “Memphis” includes Scenic Designer Stephen Gifford, Costume Designer Paul Tazewell, Lighting Designer Jennifer Edwards, Sound Designer Brandon Boomizad, Projection Designer Jonathan Infante, Hair & Wig Designer Peter Herman, Costume Coordinator Felicia Broschart, Properties Coordinator Bonnie Durben, and Stage Manager Topaz Cooks. Lyndon Pugeda is the Music Director and Conductor of the eight-piece Memphis Band. The band is on stage and Lyndon is in costume as he plays the piano at Delray’s Club.
“Memphis” does touch on a number of sensitive, but important topics and there is occasional language, which might make this a slightly PG-13 performance. Tickets are available at 760-724-2110 or go to www.moonlightstage.com. Next up for Moonlight is “Cinderella” beginning on June 8th.
Photos by Karli Cadel