Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Memphis
Artistry
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Atacama and Imagine a U.S. without Racism


Dante Banks Murray and Vie Boheme
Photo by Tommy Sar
With Memphis. Artistry has a tuneful, lively musical turning up the heat at the Bloomington Center for the Arts. The 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical (it also took home trophies for Best original Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Orchestrations) is loosely based on real-life Dewey Phillips. Phillips, a white radio disk jockey in Memphis from 1949 through the 1950s, was the first to play rhythm and blues music by Black performers on a middle-of-the-dial radio station. This "new sound"–new, that is, to white listeners–attracted droves of listeners and created new record-buying customers. In addition to changing the musical palate, Phillips presented a wild persona of half hillbilly, half smart aleck street smarts. Alan Freed picked up Phillip's concept in Cleveland and pushed it even further. Dick Clark followed with success in Philadelphia, then to a national television audience. But it started in Memphis.

Playwright Joe DiPietro's original musical book takes a Dewey-type personality–dubbed Huey Calhoun–and tells the story of how this white ne'er-do-well found his calling and the love of his life in a Black basement music club on Beale Street. The other customers are suspicious of Huey, the only white person in the club–usually, the only white people who entered were cops on the take. Huey convinces most of them with his warmth and homespun humor that he genuinely loves the music. Delray, the club's owner, remains skeptical when he sees Huey's more than casual interest in Delray's sister, Felicia, who sings in the club and has designs on a singing career.

Huey proves a point at the department store where he works by selling a heap of records when he switches the demo from Patti Page to an R&B group singing "Everybody Wants to Be Black on Saturday Night" but ends up being fired by violating the store's prestige as an establishment for white people. Undaunted, he finesses this experience to work his way into a job on a radio station, and also to boost Felicia's career–and their relationship–by playing her music on the air. All the while he sidesteps his God-fearing but redneck mother, as well as Delray. Huey's enthusiasm is infectious, but his naivete about the possibility of him, a white man, and Felicia, a Black woman, being seen as a couple in 1950s Memphis costs them both heavily.

David Bryan, of the band Bon Jovi, wrote the songs for Memphis and, with DiPietro, the lyrics. The songs are not, individually, highly distinguished, but they effectively establish the mood of a change in musical tastes as a generation of young people who did not contend with the depression or fight in World War II comes of age. The songs range from straight out R&B to gospel to the country-hued "Love Will Stand When All Else Falls" to a hint of late fifties girl group sound in Felicia's first big hit, "Someday," and wraps up with the rocking "Steal Your Rock 'N' Roll". About a third of the songs are performance pieces for Felicia, the band at Delray's club, or other performers on Huey's show. A fair number are character driven, giving Huey ("The Music of My Soul"), Felicia ("Colored Woman") and Delray (She's My Sister") each a powerful moment to bare themselves, with a second helping for Huey, "Memphis Lives in Me," a powerful number in the eleven o'clock spot that was cleverly excerpted for the commercials that ran when Memphis was playing on Broadway. Memphis's score won't be included among the all time greats, but the songs are tuneful, open up numerous possibilities for great dancing, and a good number of them do what songs in musical theater must do–advance the story, not only entertaining us but increasing our investment in the story and its characters.

There is a problem with Memphis, as pointed out in an interview with Artistry's creative team for the production that ran in the Minneapolis Star Tribune the day before their opening. A major theme of the show is the contribution of African American music to the broader American popular music scene, including the birth of rock and roll. The show's focus is on a white man, and depicts other men in the music industry, all white, making the moves that enable the Black community to break through the barriers and reach a larger audience. It was written by two white men, DiPietro and Bryan. In fact, the idea for the show sprang forward from George W. George, a white theater and film producer.

To be fair, the book creates strong Black characters in Felicia and Delray, both of whom exercise agency over their lives. Further, the depiction of white supremacist racism in the 1950s American South, including the use of highly offensive language, is historically accurate. To omit that truth would be the greater injury. Still, the concern about who has control over representation is valid and is an issue that has garnered more attention in the twenty years since Memphis began to take shape.

Recognizing this concern, Artistry assembled a creative team led by three African American women: Aimee K. Bryant, one of the hardest working actors in town, taking on her first directing assignment; choreographer Leah Nelson; and music director Ginger Commodore. This high-powered team makes the show move swiftly and seamlessly, with clarity around the events and the characters as the narrative unfolds, filling the show with dynamic dance sequences that convey the heat within the souls of the dancers, both Black and white, and with the sounds of sweetly harmonized vocals and a terrific ten-player band conducted by Raymond Berg. Moreover, there is a sense of authenticity in how the Black characters and their community are portrayed, giving credence to both the pain they endure and the power they grasp.

As for performances, Memphis has been dealt a hand of aces. Leads Vie Boheme, as Felicia, and Matt Riehle as Huey are terrific, with powerful and pleasing voices that send their songs to the rafters, and a convincing depiction of their characters' personal struggles, and how they come to resolve the hard choices they each make. Danté Banks Murray is a striking Delray, delivering "She's My Sister" with a soaring sense of urgency. Wendy Short-Hays, as Huey's Mama, is persuasive in her shift from total opposition to Huey's choices to recognizing that she must learn to live with them–whether or not she approves. She makes the point with unexpected grit in "Change Don't Come Easy." The rest of the cast and ensemble give their all, bringing a shine to the entire production.

The physical production, with set design by Michael Hoover, is effective but modest. The band is concealed under a platform on one side of the stage, and a platform on the other side serves as Huey's DJ booth. A bridge connects the two, standing in in for the streets of Memphis. Furnishings rolled on and off establish other settings. It works, but is not very eye catching, nor does it particularly give a sense of place, the place being 1950s Memphis. Along both sides of the stage are graphics meant to illustrate Memphis life, but they are difficult to make out. The only one discernible to me was the scripted logo of Goldsmith's, an old-line Memphis department store that, in 2005, was subsumed by the relentless expansion of Macy's.

Joe Samuel Burch III's costumes do a better job of conjuring a place and time and also are well matched to the personality of those wearing them. I was especially impressed by Delray's sharp suit, acquired after he begins to brush against success. Kyia Britts' lighting is effective throughout the show. For the most part, the sound works well, but at the performance I attended, there were occasional lapses at the start of scenes when a character was not initially amplified. Quite likely, these were opening night glitches that have been corrected.

Putting aside a couple of quibbles, this is an altogether satisfying production of Memphis with strong performances, especially in the two leads. Those unfamiliar with the show will discover a well-crafted score and a compelling narrative that presents cultural history through the lens of a few individuals whose lives were dramatically shaped by it. I recommend you check it out.

Memphis runs through May 15, 2022, at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: $52.00; Seniors (Age 62 and up): $47; Youth (age 12 and under): $20.00; Next Generation (age 13 - 30): $25.00. For tickets and information, please visit artistrymn.org or call 952-563-8375.

Book: Joe DiPietro; Music: David Bryan; Lyrics: Joe Pietro and David Bryan; Director: Aimee K. Bryant; Choreographer: Leah Nelson; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Joe Samuel Burch III; Lighting Design: Kyia Britts; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer and Alexander Pikiben; Hair and Makeup Design: Emily Christoffersen; Properties Design: Katie Phillips; Orchestrations: David Bryan and Daryl Waters; Music Director: Ginger Commodore; Music Supervisor: Anita Ruth; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Technical Director: Will Rafferty; Associate Director and Choreographer: Emily Madigan; Stage Managers: John Novak and Kathryn Sam Houkom; Assistant Stage Manager: Jessica Goldade.

Cast: Jay Albright (Mr. Collins/Gordon Grant), Vie Boheme (Felicia Farrell), Emily Madigan (Gator), Danté Banks Murray (Delray Farrell), Matt Riehle (Huey Calhoun), Rudolph Searles III (Bobby Dupree), Wendy Short-Hays (Mama Gladys Calhoun), Carl Swanson (Mr. Simmons). Ensemble: Mikki Anthony, Matthew J. Brightbill, ShaVunda Brown, Rodney Patrick Fair, Bri Graham, Julian Jahneral Hines, Javari Horne, Ricky Morisseau, C. Ryan Shipley, Elly Stahlke, Therese Walth.


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