Mason Street’s ‘Memphis’ is gritty and soulful
Memphis, the musical season-opener at Saugatuck’s Mason Street Theatre, explodes off the stage with the same irresistible energy as Huey Calhoun, the irreverent 1950s disc jockey that’s the central character of this 2010 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.
Although the plot is a little thin, this show is all about music and dance. From the catchy beat that gets the audience swaying in their seats to those roof-raising soulful notes and the amazingly athletic dance routines, Memphis is high energy entertainment.
Once again director/choreographer Kurt Stamm pulls out the stops with an extremely talented cast that just never sits still. At first the African-American
half of the 22-member cast has all the cool moves, while the white characters humorously struggle to dance. But they catch on before the night’s done. Musical director Jamie Reed joins in the fun by having his small band march up to their stage-side station in costume.
The Huey Calhoun character is loosely based on Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, one of the first white radio hosts to play black music in the 1950s. Actor David R. Gordon does a fantastic job creating a Calhoun that is irritatingly unforgettable with his slouchy stance, nervous mannerisms and edgy voice. And Gordon can really belt out the songs.
A high school dropout who dresses like a bum, Calhoun stumbles into a black juke joint on Beale Street, drawn by the rhythm and blues music. The all-black clientele is suspicious until he convinces them in song that this is the “Music of My Soul.” Calhoun finagles a job on a radio station. His unusual style, and the peppy “race” music he plays, soon win a following.
Although there are several great voices in the cast, the show’s undeniable queen of searing soul is Lindsay Roberts who repeatedly raises the roof as the juke joint’s star, Felicia Farrell. She zings them in with the infectious gospel tune “Make Me Stronger,” the heartfelt honesty of “Colored Woman” and the sugarpop appeal of Felicia’s first recording, “Someday.”
Predictably, there’s an attraction between Felicia and Calhoun, and the expected resistance from family and community. Garrett Turner does a great job as Felicia’s brother, Delray, who offers an explosive lament in “She’s My Sister.” Meanwhile Huey’s mother, given a strong performance by Jane Blass, has more of a sarcastic, comedic turn.
Calhoun’s favorite expletive, “Hockadoo,” sounds vaguely like a rooster crowing, only different. That describes some of the music in Memphis, which features a score by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan with lyrics by Joe DiPietro.
The opening number, “Underground,” bothered me because it sounded like pasting new lyrics on a song I knew from another context. I finally realized much of the tune was stolen from Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.” The show’s finale, ironically named “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll,” feels and sounds very much like “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” the finale of “Hairspray.” Not only did this borrowing leave a bad taste in my mouth, it caused me to start comparing the two shows in my mind. Although both deal with race as it relates to popular music, “Hairspray” is much more fun, and if possible even more energetic, while “Memphis” is more gritty.
It’s a shame to dim the good qualities of “Memphis” with a borrowed beginning and end. Most of the songs like “Love will Stand” and “Change Don’t Come Easy” seem to evolve organically out of the story which is the very essence of a good musical. Some are playfully fun like “Scratch my Itch” and “Everybody Wants to be Black.” And some are poignant like “Say a Prayer.”
So, if you are heading to Saugatuck, put Mason Street on your list. There’s lots to love in “Memphis.”