The musical Memphis was a bit of an underdog when it started performances on Broadway in the Fall of 2009. There were no big “name” actors in the cast; the score came from “Bon Jovi” drummer David Bryan, making his Broadway debut, not from Jon Bon Jovi himself; and the book was from Joe DiPietro who had yet to have a Broadway hit. It had also spent several years being worked and re-worked in various regional theatres across the country, so not much was expected from it. But it exploded on Broadway with audiences moved by the emotional story and Bryan’s energetic music and went on to win several Tonys, including the one for Best Musical. The first time I saw it was at a Broadway preview and I was as moved and enthralled as the people around me and the production that Phoenix Theatre just opened their season with is as effective, crowd pleasing and powerful as it was on Broadway.
Memphis is set in the early 1950's and focuses on two underdogs - Huey, a young white DJ, who makes it his mission to get "race" music played on the local, very “white” radio stations and Felicia, a talented young black woman with dreams of making it as a singer that Huey falls in love with while battling racial prejudice and bigotry. A mostly original story, though based somewhat on disc jockey Dewey Phillips who was the first DJ in Memphis to play music by African American artists, Memphis is a non-stop parade of the music and emotions that were prevalent in the 1950’s. DiPietro’s book, while slightly by the numbers, is still intelligent with colorful, realistic characters and Bryan’s score (with DiPietro also contributing some lyrics) features many impressive numbers that pay homage to the sounds of the 50’s while also fitting nicely into the style of musical theatre.
Phoenix Theatre’s production features two actors, CJ Pawlikowski and Tia DeShazor, in the lead roles who both create memorable characters. Pawlikowski is excellent as Huey. He is charismatic and makes this underdog character someone that everyone roots for. Pawlikowski has an amazing amount of energy and a great singing voice while also dancing perfectly in character, instilling his steps with the klutzy demeanor Pawlikowski gives Huey. While Huey isn’t exactly supposed to be your typical romantic leading man role, especially with his hokey accent and his insistence of using bizzare words like “Hockadoo,” Pawlikowoski’s good looks, even when dressed in mismatched clothes and wearing big, thick glasses, comes through in spades with charm oozing out of him. It’s easy to see how Felicia falls for him. His Huey has warmth, not only with the people closest to him, like Felicia and his mother, but also with just about every other actor on the stage. It is a winning and engaging performance.
Tia DeShazor is more reserved in her portrayal, which works well since Felicia has had to deal with a lot of obstacles in her life so is a bit more reluctant to believe anyone who makes promises to her. DeShazor has a realistic delivery of her dialogue, including a witty comic ability and her soulful voice fits perfectly into the songs written for Felicia, though it doesn’t quite soar as high as Montego Glover’s, who originated the part on Broadway. Like Pawlikowski, she has charm to spare and the two of them also create plenty of passion together.
CR Lewis makes a good impression as Felicia's brother Del Ray, a man who is just as concerned and questioning of Felicia and Huey's relationship as Huey's mother is. The part is a bit underwritten, but Lewis still manages to instill the role with a sense of responsibility and understanding. While Lisa Fogel brings an appropriate air of prejudice and bigotry in her feisty portrayal of Huey’s mom Gladys, she also perfectly projects the role as a woman who is simply concerned for her son. Chris Eriksen gives Simmons, the station owner who gives Huey his first DJ’ing job, a light, humorous touch that works and David Robbins as Bobby, the custodian at the radio station, is sweet and funny with some impressive vocals and dance moves. Miguel Jackson instills a sweet sensibility in the almost always silent “Gator”, though I wish his big revelatory moment was better staged and focused to allow it to be even more effective and have more emotional resonance.
The ensemble for this show is hard working with them all contributing plenty of dancing and vocals, with most of them playing multiple characters as well. Terry Gadaire, who excelled as the “Emcee” in Desert Stage’s Cabaret two months back, perfectly and humorously creates several very different characters with just a change of wig and costume, the addition of facial hair and invoking a new accent. Chanel Bragg, Britney Mack and Trisha Hart Ditsworth create various characters with ease and dance up a storm and at only 17 years old, Carly Grossman has skilled dance moves and, with just a few lines of dialogue, makes quite an impression.
Barnard's staging is quite effective, making good use of the entire space including the second level walkway and staircase. He keeps the show moving along at a brisk pace and also elicits a nice emotional depth from his actors along with plenty of humor yet doesn't tread too lightly on the elements of prejudice and violence in the show, ensuring they resonate. Michael Jenkinson’s choreography is explosive with 50's era moves and steps that are engaging. The only misstep, though it ends in a crowd pleasing way, is the staging of the act two duet for Gladys and Del Ray, "Change Don't Come Easy," that involves fairly elaborate choreography that doesn't organically grow out of the situation or the characters. Though, while it doesn't fit the moment, it still gets big applause.
Like the cast, the creative elements for the production are outstanding. With just a few small set pieces including two moving columns that open up to reveal small interior sets, a moving staircase, and period projections on the brick façade flats, Robert Kovach's design works perfectly to portray the many locations in the show. From Huey's mismatched clothes of varying patterns that appear to be thrown together, a parade of beautiful dresses for Felicia and the ladies and appropriate suits for the men, Adriana Diaz’s costumes are knock-outs. With an electric combination of lush, dark reds, greens and purples, Michael J. Eddy’s lighting design is excellent. Dave Temby’s sound design is clear and crisp though during some of the solo performance numbers, when the ensemble comes in to back up Felicia, the balance seems a bit off as they almost drown her out. The orchestra led by Alan Ruch is superb and his music direction provides vocals from the cast that are lush and full.
DiPietro’s book does paint the characters and motivations a bit simplistically as the majority of the white characters are all prejudiced hicks only motivated to change their views due to personal gain, and Bryan’s score does suffer from an abundance of soaring rock anthems more in line with Whitney Houston than the female singers of the 50’s. But the simplicity works in that it easily shows the struggles of a few people caught up in the turbulent civil rights issues of the 50’s and the score is still entertaining even if it isn’t exactly all period specific.
With continuing racial concerns, including the recent incident in Ferguson, MO as well as the on-going battle for gay marriage rights, the themes and situations from sixty years ago that are at the core of the show, including racial harmony and acceptance of interracial marriages, are still relevant today. With a vastly talented cast, impressive direction and creative elements as well as vocals that make the most of the rocking score, Phoenix Theatre’s Memphis is an explosive and engaging production, just as impressive as it was on Broadway, that brings the important message of the story to life in an engaging way.
Memphis runs through October 12th, 2014 at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at http://phoenixtheatre.com/ or by calling (602) 254-2151
Book and Lyrics by Joe Dipietro
*Members of Actors’ Equity Association