By Karen Isaacs
Ivoryton Playhouse has followed its excellent July production of South Pacific, with as nearly as good production of the Tony winning musical Memphis, running through Aug. 30.
Surpisingly, given the differences in setting and time period, similarities abound between the two shows.
Memphis is roughly based on the life of Dewey Phillips, a Memphis disc jockey in the early 1950s who dared to play artists who were African-American. Dewey was white and segregation was still the norm in the south.
In the show, Dewey – renamed Huey – is in love with the sound of the early rock ‘n roll and rhythm and blues and visits a small club owned by Delray that features his sister, Felicia, as the singer. Huey is smitten both with the club and with Felicia. Soon he wangles his way into a DJ gig at a third rate station and starts to play the music he loves. He becomes a hit and his relationship with Felicia and Delray and the others who hang at the club deepens. Act one ends with the two sharing a kiss and then some white thugs beat both Huey and Felicia who is the more seriously injured.
As the musical continues, Huey’s popularity grows to include a TV show but he also becomes overly confident of his popularity. He refuses an opportunity to go on network TV (it is hinted that Dick Clark got the job) because the network wants him to replace the black dancers with white ones. Felicia does go to New York with a recording contract and becomes a star. Huey remains in Memphis, a mere shadow of his former success.
So you can see that this show – like South Pacific – addresses interracial romance and prejudice.
This is NOT jukebox musical – the songs are all original, written David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) – but they capture the era of early rock and rhythm and blues well with some soul music sounds thrown in.
Todd L. Underwood directs and choreographs a talented cast. His direction was excellent but I found some of the choreography in the first act more reminiscent of the popular dances of the 1960s than the early ‘50s. That is a relatively minor quibble.
Kudos to scenic designer Martin Scott Marchitto for the set, and Doug Harry for the lighting design.
Now let’s talk about the cast. Carson Higgins plays Huey as almost too goofy to be believed. Yes, he is obsessed with the music and oblivious to the social realities, but Higgins plays him as though he is on the autism scale. You are not quite sure what Felicia finds so attractive about him.
Renee Jackson is excellent as Felicia. She imbues her with intelligence and warmth, plus her voice is terrific.
Praise also to Teren Carter who plays her brother Delray, and to Beau Allen as Mr. Bridges, the man who hires Huey and to Melodie Wolford, who plays Gladys, Huey’s mother. In addition both Jamal Shuriah and David Robbins are excellent as two friends of Delray and Felicia.
Ivoryton should be congratulated on this excellent production of Memphis. The show and this production does not “pull its punches” about the realities of racism in the US in the 1950s In fact, at the beginning of the show, a few audience members gasped at how directly it is expressed.
Memphis is at Ivoryton Playhouse through Aug. 30. For tickets call 860-787-7318 or online at ivorytonplayhouse.org.