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Memphis – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

Memphis poster

If you happened to be around during the mid to late fifties and listened to music radio, there’s a good chance that classics like Tutt-Frutti, Blueberry Hill or Ain’t That a Shame were on the rotation, but not by the original artists.   After all, why would a white-run radio station with white sponsors play those upbeat, lively and packed with soulful feeling race songs by the likes of Fats Domino or Little Richard when there were perfectly good, plain, white-bred versions recorded by that nice Mr. Pat Boone waiting to be spun?   Even Julie London recorded a cover of Louie Louie.

That’s the theme of the hit Broadway musical Memphis, a fictional account of what happened when a white DJ played black music, and it opened to a deserved thunderous applause this weekend at the valley’s Phoenix Theatre, kicking off the theatre’s amazing 94th season with an unstoppable in-your-face energy.  It practically leaps off the stage from the get-go.

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Loosely based on the career of real-life DJ Dewey Phillips, Memphis tells of Huey Calhoun (Cj Pawikowski) an uneducated and somewhat ‘crazy white kid’ who stumbles into an underground black dive bar one night, drawn by the sound of its pulsating rock ‘n roll.   “Ain’t no white folks here,” the bar’s owner, Delray (CR Lewis) explains, “’Coz they’re too damn scared.”

Huey’s not altogether bright.   “I can’t even spell TV,” he states, but that doesn’t stop his ambition of getting the kind of music he likes to hear played on the radio.   Using his street smarts and a crazed sense of energy, Huey talks his way into getting a job as a local disc jockey.   Actually, he hi-jacks his way in, steals the mic from the current announcer, tosses the songs of Patti Page and Roy Rogers aside and plays Everybody Wants To Be Black on a Saturday Night to a surprisingly enthusiastic white audience.   Well, an enthusiastic young white audience.   The older ones are not altogether happy.   “No God-fearing person listens to that,” Huey is told. “Play Perry Como. He’s everybodies favorite.”

Memphis 3

It’s only when the young DJ, who can’t read, hilariously ad-libs his way around a live beer commercial that his career takes off.   Sales go through the roof, and so does Huey’s popularity and influence.   While on the air he tells his listeners that if they want to hear great singing they need to go to black churches.   “You sent innocent white kids to a colored church?” his mother (Lisa Fogel) asks in disbelief.

The exciting and occasionally inspiring score by Joe Dipietro and Bon Jovi’s David Bryan plays loose with the themes and style of the time but captures the spirit of the era and presents it with glittering showbiz panache, here presented under the solid musical direction of Alan Ruch.   This is not a jukebox musical recreating the hits of the time; this is a brand new score.   And there are plenty of standouts.   She’s My Sister by CR Lewis is both heartfelt and moving, as is Change Don’t Come Easy giving Lisa Fogel’s change-of-heart racist moma a chance to shine, plus anything sung by the luminous Tia DeShazor as Felicia is in danger of giving the audience endless goose bumps.   When Tia’s Felicia eventually reaches the giddy heights of turning professional, it’s not hard to buy.   With Tia’s voice, her presence and her ability to sell every song, it’s not just her character that deserves the spotlight.

The way the central figure is written, Huey Calhoun is undoubtedly odd and not easy to get used to, yet his simple manner, his apparent innocence of what others may think, and his overall enthusiasm for what he’s trying to achieve wins you over, even if you’re not entirely sure you even like him.   Cj Pawlikowski nails the part of the gangly, simple and somewhat undisciplined, motor-mouthed white DJ to the point where even though the character might actually annoy, his  obsession fueled by an unstoppable passion for what he’s doing has you cheering him on, every step of the way.

Memphis 4

There’s such an infectious feeling of musical celebration throughout, you tend to overlook some of the problems of Joe Dipietro’s book.   The themes are at best superficial; this is a surface look at what it was like during the time, though occasionally we catch a glimpse of the ugly side of racism, enough to snap us out of our rose-tainted complacency and remind us that this is all actually serious.   When a distraught mother can’t stop her young white daughter (Carly Grossman, a Spotlight Youth Theatre performer showing such great promise) from dancing to that race music, she demands her husband do something.   The result is a swift and painful slap across the face from dad.   It stops the daughter from dancing and it momentarily stuns the audience into silence.

Under Michael Barnard’s confident and experienced direction – the production never makes a false step – supported by Michael Jenkinson’s powerful choreography, Robert Kovach’s highly effective set design with transitions that move quickly and smoothly to the next scene, and Adrian Diaz’s colorfully explosive costumes, Memphis is the kind of dazzling, audience crowd-pleaser that throws down the gauntlet and challenges the rest of the season to try and beat it, which will not be easy.

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre website.

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