Raleigh Little Theatre’s 2016-17 “Season of Discovery” opens with its first mainstage show, Memphis, an original musical with music and lyrics by David Bryan and book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro. The team also wrote the 2008 rock musical The Toxic Avenger, which opens October 7 at the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre. Bryan is best known as the keyboardist for Bon Jovi, and DiPietro is a playwright best known for writing the book and lyrics to the Off-Broadway hit I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. He also wrote the book for the Elvis Presley musical All Shook Up and the re-imagined Gershwin musical Nice Work If You Can Get It.
Memphis was first workshopped in 2002, ran on Broadway from 2009 to 2012 and won four Tony® awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, and Best Orchestrations. The story is loosely based on the career of Memphis-based disc jockey Dewey Phillips, who, in the 1950s, was one of the first white DJs to play songs by black musicians. You’ve heard the story before: a guy wants to make his girl a big star and then things start to go wrong. Think Dreamgirls, but less sexist, and with a better book.
Zak Casca gives a remarkably energetic and funny performance as Huey, a down-on-his-luck music-loving doofus in 1950s Memphis. Casca’s physical energy in this play is astonishing, and his vocal talents shine in his first big song, “Music of My Soul,” but the authors don’t give Huey all that much music — certainly not compared to Felicia, played by Aya Wallace with a mixture of fierce intensity and endearing vulnerability. Diana Ross’ wispy, delicate voice is no match for Wallace’s fiery pipes. She brings the house down routinely with her belting solos, and I kept waiting for somebody to pass the collection plate.
Chase Rivers wins the audience over immediately, and pretty much steals the show as the good-hearted and loveable Bobby. Alison Lawrence takes us on an emotional journey with Huey’s mother, Gladys. In a show whose timeline is difficult to grasp, Gladys is the character that we can lean on to help show the story’s development. Lawrence’s character-based vocals are pitch-perfect for the character, and she has some of the show’s funniest bits.
Brian Westbrook plays a number of sinister characters with great ferociousness. By the end of his first scene, the audience is certainly no friend of his. Del Flack, Sally Kinka, and Randy Jordan also add excellent character work and humor.
The winning trio of suave singer-dancers Andrew Coleman, Jarrett Bennett, and Kyree Harris certainly give the show a great deal of its pre-Motown flavor, with loads of sass and hip-swaying from Tyanna West and Destiny Diamond, and sweet, wide-eyed innocence from Lauren Knott.
The dialogue is quite funny in many places, but the cast frequently talked under audience laughter, and some potentially strong moments were lost. The addition of a handful of ensemble members bellowing “Gaaaaay!” during a scene was anachronistic and obnoxious.
RLT artistic director Patrick Torres does a solid job of directing this piece, which can easily feel overly-long and drawn out. He manages to keep the train moving at a steady pace, and the audience seemed to stay with him.
L.D. Burris’ energetic choreography was certainly the tough stuff. When it was done well, it was some of the show’s most impressive work; but a handful of ensemble members couldn’t quite keep up with the rest of the group.
Musical director Michael Santangelo deserves most of the credit for this show’s successful moments, along with the amazing vocalists that Torres cast. The harmonies are airtight, the blends are smooth, and the entire cast delivers song after song of serious vocal power. I’d be remiss in not mentioning Santangelo’s expert band — another leading character in the show. They play with great energy and a style befitting the 1950s.
Props master Amy Massey must be given serious, well, props, for her fine work. A period piece is challenging in and of itself. But one with this many props is a staggering undertaking for any designer. The dozens and dozens of 45s alone are worthy of applause. One of the show’s detractors, however, is the silver microphone that stayed mostly in the faces of the actors singing and several numbers became What Do We Do with This Damn Microphone?
Elizabeth Newton’s scenic design is pleasant to look at and certainly appropriate for the period and the story, but some of the bulkier elements made for troubling transitions. It was effective in the first half of the show to have two cast members deal with furniture during scene changes. But the sudden appearance of three well-lit techies was distracting.
Todd Houseknecht found a beautiful sound mix between the vocalists and the band, something which is not easily achieved, but Zak Casca’s microphone was somewhat inconsistent.
Arthur Reese’s lighting design showed a flare for color and lent itself to mood and setting. However, there were instances in which characters were in near-dark or completely dark patches. Part of this was exacerbated by a spotlight that didn’t always follow the actors.
Real kudos are due to Vicki Olson’s impeccable, stunning, and detailed costumes, which are the show’s finest design feature. Her flare for color, shape, and character are all present here; and there are dozens of costumes to show it off. However, at times the number of costumes seems exhaustive. Huey is supposedly a boy who lives in pretty serious poverty, but he evidently has about 20 shirts at home and never wears one twice.
Stage manager Karyn Aberts and her team have got some really quick action going on backstage, and the show is obviously well-planned and well-rehearsed.
A very strong cast, some solid design choices, and humorous dialogue make this show a great deal of fun. Minor technical flaws and a predictable story make the show less than perfect. Still, it’s a show that I recommend seeing for the home-run hitting production numbers and stellar onstage talent. I have seen few audiences as enthusiastic as this one — a freshly-out-of-church Sunday afternoon crowd that flew to its feet before the curtain call lights had come up.
The show is in PG-13 territory for language and stage violence.
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; Aug. 19th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with director Patrick Torres, choreographer L.D. Burris, and actors Zak Casca and Aya Wallace, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/post/memphis-musical; Aug. 18th Raleigh, NC WRAL interview with actress Aya Wallace: http://www.wral.com/news/local/video/15939347/; and Aug. 17th Hillsborough, NC WHUP interview with director Patrick Torres and managing director Charles Phaneuf: https://whupfm.org/episode/lights-up-81716-permanent-archive/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 22nd Triangle Review review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/08/rlts-memphis-is-a-dynamic-toe-tappin-hand-clappin-jumpin-and-jivin-experience/.)
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 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).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.