Memphis, with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music and lyrics by David Bryan, is a lively start to Raleigh Little Theatre’s 2016-17 season. With its first song, “Underground,” the tone and beat are set for nonstop music and patter.
Young Huey Calhoun — who represents “Daddy-O” Dewey Phillips and “Moondog” Alan Freed, two famous white disc jockeys from the Memphis area in the early 1950s who broke the color barrier by presenting black musical genres on their radio stations — slips into Delray’s, a black nightclub, and convinces the patrons that his interest is only the music, which he loves. The plot continues with Huey’s becoming a DJ and falling in love with Delray’s sister, Felicia, and going through a series of interracial experiences.
RLT artistic director Patrick Torres, with the able assistance of choreographer L.D. Burris, has staged a dynamic, toe-tappin’, hand clappin’, jumpin’, and jivin’ experience that has folks virtually dancing out of the theater on their way home. Musical director Michael Santangelo leads a nine-piece orchestra that keeps the cast and audience hopping with joy.
Costume designer Vicki Olson expertly recreates clothing of the period, with bright colors and flared skirts made for dancing. Scenic designer Elizabeth Newton gives us a versatile set, which allows easy transitions from the underground nightclub to a radio broadcasting studio.
The pace is fast, driven by Huey’s frantic mind and emotionality (Dewey Phillips was an amphetamine user); and Zak Casca’s portrayal of Huey is consistent with such a character. His solo piece, “Hello, My Name is Huey, Sir,” amply showcases Casca’s vocal abilities and control of the frenzied young protagonist.
Aya Wallace is confident and sensitive in the role of Felicia, Huey’s love interest. Her versions of “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails” are beautiful, and she also a skilled actress and dancer. Well done!
Delray is a man with a big heart and big ferocity to go with it, tough, but oh, so gentle. He is ably portrayed by Juan Isler, who displays considerable singing, dancing, and acting talent. His duet with Huey, “She’s My Sister,” shows all these qualities off well.
Bobby, the incredibly underemployed janitor, is played with enormous joviality by Chase Rivers. His dancing and singing with the broom is just plain charming, and his ability to move his body around is stunning.
Jade Arnold is magnificent as the mute Gator, who recovers his ability to speak in time to sing with Bobby and Huey in the heartwarming “Say A Prayer.”
Gladys, Huey’s mother, who’s suffered lifelong bigotry, is played with harshness as well as tenderness by Alison Lawrence. Her quartet with Bobby, Delray and Gator, “Change Don’t Come Easy,” is belted out with gusto like a torch singer.
Mr. Simmons, the owner of the radio station where Huey worms his way into DJ-ing, is played by Del Flack as a no-nonsense businessman, who wakes up to the money this new popular music can make for him.
The large chorus of dancers and singers radiate in concert with the action, many of them also playing a variety of individual backup roles, including Perry Como!
Give yourself a back-to-school present, and see history that is important to us all in a musical that is endearing and energetic.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 22nd Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh review by Jeffrey Kare: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-Raleigh-Little-Theatres-MEMPHIS-20160822; Aug. 22nd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article97141267.html; and Aug. 18th Raleigh, NC WRAL video preview: http://www.wral.com/news/local/video/15939347/.
Raleigh Little Theatre presents MEMPHIS at 8 p.m. Aug. 25-27, 3 p.m. Aug. 28, 8 p.m. Sept. 1-3, 3 p.m. Sept. 4, 8 p.m. Sept. 9 and 10, and 3 p.m. Sept. 11 in its Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $27 ($23 students and seniors 62+).
BOX OFFICE: 919-821-3111 or https://raleighlittletheatre.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0Sd000000PJ5d4EAD.
2016-17 SEASON: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/tickets/memberships.html.
PRESENTER: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/RaleighLittleTheatre, https://twitter.com/RLT1936, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raleigh_Little_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/raleighlittletheatre.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices are available for all shows. RLT has also installed a hearing loop in the Cantey V. Sutton Theatre.
NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28th, performance.
Memphis (2009 Broadway and 2014 West End): http://www.memphisthemusical.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/memphis-484157 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memphis_%28musical%29 (Wikipedia).
David Bryan (music and lyrics): http://www.davidbryan.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/david-bryan-484159 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bryan (Wikipedia).
Joe DiPietro (lyrics and book): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/joe-dipietro-383115 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_DiPietro (Wikipedia).
Patrick Torres (director and RLT artistic director): https://www.facebook.com/patrick.torres.585 (Facebook page).
Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: http://www.chuckgalle.com/. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.