Ending as it began, Porchlight’s MEMPHIS leaves you exalted—and vicariously panting…
It doesn’t just start. Rather, MEMPHIS explodes onto the Ruth Page Theater stage with rock your soul music propelling its charisma-charged ensemble’s high energy dance. At rapid pace, they flash moves melding The Jerk, The Chicken, The Grind, Lindy and more. It’s an encyclopedia of rock dance moves show biz style (Choreographer/Assistant Direction: Christopher Carter; Assistant Choreography: Reneisha Jenkins) that shouts “GET READY FOR FUN!”
The ensemble’s ecstasy seems like a curtain that then parts to let the superstar cast tell – and sing!—this timely story about race relations in America. No spoiler here- just know that from the very first sentence MEMPHIS takes you on a deep dive into the racial divide, touching upon most of the topics well-schooled anti-racism coaches would include in a month-long seminar.
We are on Beale Street, where R&B music filled African-American halls, while White America’s more pablum-style popular music dominated the radio dial. A ne’er do well White boy barges into one of these clubs, smitten by a Black woman’s voice, and soon the whole package. This Huey (played by Liam Quealy) is roughly based on the real-world person of Dewey Phillips, whom, we learn from the program, was the DJ who spurred the crossover of Black R&B music to become what was called Rock N’Roll. How Huey’s forbidden love for African-American chanteuse Felicia (Aeriel Williams) plays out provides the dramatic arc for the story—and the window on racism at the heart of this musical. Think of the musical SHOWBOAT—except no slow river paddle. Like Rock music itself, described by Felicia, as “Blues music but just a lot faster”- this is a speedboat that doesn’t hold back from making waves.
With Porchlight Musical Theatre Top Talent Signature
It’s difficult to overstate the talent explosion powering this production. In the first instant you might wonder if slight-framed Aerial Williams has what it takes to fill the theater. Then, within a musical Memphis-minute ,you realize she’s got that opera-hall sized diva voice that transforms Porchlight’s new bigger performance venue at Ruth Page into a cozy and intimate soiree space. Quealy is that kind of triple threat that makes one curious about whether his first love was theater, music or dance. These are stars more than ready for Broadway.
Rock stars though these two leads are, the supporting cast often steals the show. Did the directors (Director: Daryl Brooks and Music Director: Jermaine Hill) have to work overtime to keep Lorenzo Rush, Jr.’s super-magnet stage presence as Felicia’s brother tapped down? (Spoiler alert of sorts) You know from the gitgo that the mute character Gator is gonna speak powerfully, but when Gilbert Domally’s strong sweet voice erupts in song (“Say a Prayer”) he absolutely transports, reminding this writer of the drama when persecuted Rodney King said to America, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
Similarly, you know from the start that Huey’s straight-laced and racist mother is going to flip as the story unfolds. Yet, when Nancy Wagner as Gladys does the deed it’s nonetheless a total WOW! And, for those of us who are James Earl Jones II fans, do know you’ll get the expected golden chords, smile and yes, a cartwheel too.
Even with these super-sized Porchlight talents making MEMPHIS come to life, you too may walk (or dance!) away thinking the lion’s share of credit goes to the show’s creators—David Bryan of BON JOVI fame (Book & Lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (Music & Lyrics).
Catchy, rockin’ music plus great story well told—no wonder this won the Tony!
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Thru June 16
Thursdays 7:30 PM
Fridays 8:00 PM
Saturdays 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM
Sundays 6:00 PM (April 29 and May 6) and 2:00 PM May 13, 20, 27 and June 3)
Final week schedule--
Ruth Page Center for the Arts
1016 North Dearborn
Stephen Allen, Jr., (ensemble/Wailin' Joe); Todd Aulwurm, (ensemble); Shantel Cribbs, (ensemble); Gilbert Domally, (Gator); Ryan Dooley, (ensemble/White DJ/Mr. Collins/White Father/Gordon Grant); Ariel M. Dorsey, (ensemble); Jared David Michael Grant, (ensemble/Black DJ/Reverend Hobson); Graham Hawley, (ensemble); James Earl Jones II, (Bobby); Kayla Kennedy, (ensemble), Nicole Lambert, (ensemble); Bernell Lassai III, (ensemble); Ivory Leonard IV, (ensemble); Mallory Maedke, (ensemble); Marvin Malone II (ensemble swing); Liam Quealy, (Huey Calhoun); Casiena Raether, (ensemble/Clara/White Mother/dance captain/fight captain); Lorenzo Rush Jr., (Delray Jones); Isaiah Silvia-Chandley, (ensemble/Buck Wiley/Martin Holton); Aalon Smith (ensemble); Koray Tarhan, (ensemble/Perry Como/Frank Dryer); Jacob Voigt (Mr. Simmons); Nancy Wagner, (Gladys Calhoun) and Aeriel Williams, (Felicia Farrell)
Daryl Brooks, director; Chris Carter, choreographer and assistant director; Jermaine Hill, music director; Reneisha Jenkins, assistant choreographer; Robert Hornbostel, sound designer; Bill Morey, costume designer; Denise Karczewski, lighting designer; Jacqueline Penrod and Richard Penrod, scenic designers; Andrew Hatcher, props designer; Matthew McMullen, stage manager; Aaron Shapiro, production manager and Johnnie Schleyer; technical director.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.