Where: Porchlight Music Theatre, Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.
When: through June 16
By ANNE SPISELMAN
One way to look at “Memphis,” Joe Dipietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan’s (music and lyrics) 2003 musical loosely based on 1950s radio personality, Dewey Phillips, is as an inspirational show celebrating the power of music, specifically rock ‘n’ roll, to overcome hatred and bring people together. Another is as a tragedy about the rise and fall of a man—and a love affair—because of racism.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s production manages to do both, thanks to Daryl Brooks’ canny direction and a terrific ensemble headed by Liam Quealy and Aerial Williams, both young actors to watch.
Quealy plays Huey Calhoun, the Phillips stand-in who is the first white Memphis DJ to play what was derisively called “race music” on a center-of-the-dial white radio station. Brash and free-wheeling, he perfectly captures the impulsive down-home country-boy style that makes Huey such a hit with his young audience. At the same time, we can see the deep flaws and insecurities behind his bravura.
Williams is Felicia Farrell, the immensely talented singer Huey meets when he becomes the first white person to integrate her brother Delray Jones’ (an imposing Lorenzo Rush, Jr.) basement club on Beale Street. Quietly elegant, self-contained, and cognizant of the realities of the Jim Crow world around them, she’s the cautious foil to Huey’s boundless enthusiasm but nonetheless falls in love with him, and not just because he promises to make her a star.
The evening weaves together the development and setbacks in their relationship with the story of the gradual acceptance of rock ‘n’ roll, over the objections of everyone from Felicia’s brother to Huey’s mother, Gladys Calhoun (Nancy Wagner). The songs played by a six-person band under conductor/pianist Jermaine Hill, and situated at the back of the deep stage, include rousing numbers, such as “The Music of My Soul” and “Everybody Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night,” and heart-felt ballads like Felicia’s beautifully rendered “Colored Woman,” Delray’s “She’s My Sister,” and Huey’s “Memphis Lives in Me.” Many are gospel-infused, among them “Make Me Stronger” and the Act 1 closer, “Say a Prayer,” movingly led by Gator (Gilbert Domally). He finds the voice he lost after seeing his father lynched when Delray and Huey almost come to blows following an assault by white thugs.
This is one of the moving scenes carefully orchestrated by Brooks, who doesn’t try to understate the darker aspects of the time and place. Another moment, one handled with as much delicacy as despair, is Felicia’s heartbroken reaction when Gladys, aghast at her son’s romance, throws the only copy of the singer’s demo record to the ground.
At the same time, there’s a good deal of humor. Bigoted anti-rock ‘n’ roll forces, such as the White DJ and store owner Mr, Collins (both played by Ryan Dooley) are caricatures, as is Buck Wiley (Isiah Silvia-Chandley), the decidedly un-hip DJ Huey replaces. One of the finest comic turns, on the other hand, comes from James Earl Jones II as Bobby, the custodian-turned-all purpose friend who gets a big laugh just answering phones and even has a solo song, “Big Love.”
The tragedy here is that Huey, a good man whose heart is in the right place, not only encounters resistance from both sides but also is undone by the prejudice he does so much to explode. And he’s not a hapless victim. The chutzpah that propels his rise also is the hubris responsible for his fall. When Felicia, thanks largely to him, gets the big break that will take her to New York and on to national fame, she begs him to go with her but he won’t. She knows they can have an open relationship there. He thinks he’s famous enough in Memphis that they can enjoy the same freedom without leaving.
Alas, Huey crosses the color line on tv with a simple kiss—and loses everything: the girl, his job, his audience. He ends up at an obscure radio station on the low end of the dial with one listener (he tells us). And when now-star Felicia kicks off her first national tour in Memphis and stops by to invite him to join her on stage, their reunion for the finale “Steal Your Rock ‘N’ Roll” feels both happy and sad–as it should. That’s because the acting in Porchlight’s production is as impressive as the singing.