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THEATER REVIEW Memphis
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-05-02

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Playwright: Music and lyrics by David Bryan, book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro. At: Porchlight Musical Theater at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: $33-$60; RuthPage.org . Runs through: June 10

The pantheon of musicals documenting the triumph of rock-and-roll as a multicultural phenomenon transcending global boundaries—a catalogue encompassing The Buddy Holly Story, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet and practically everything written by Jackie Taylor—has now been expanded to restore Dewey Phillips, Tennessee's real-life pioneering prophet, to his rightful place in a myth too long dominated by East Coast imitators Alan Freed and Dick Clark.

Our forgotten hero's fictional counterpart is young Huey Calhoun, a ninth-grade dropout living with his mother and working as a stockboy at a modest Memphis department store. In his off-duty time, he strolls Beale Street—a dangerous proposition for urban white citizens in 1951—enticed by the music emanating from the "colored" clubs. His curiosity takes him to DelRay's basement bar, where he is promptly smitten by the proprietor's singing sister Felicia. Soon Huey has introduced "race music" to the customers at his place of employment, then to the local radio station where he soon hosts his own show, and finally, to the burgeoning new medium of television. As his star continues to rise, so does his faith in the power of fame to overcome the social/legal obstacles engendered by entrenched bigotry. Musicals always have happy endings—don't they?

Capitalism and Jim Crow are hardly original impediments to true love, but Joe DiPietro's book articulates the difficult choices engendered thereby with a candor echoed by David Bryan's period-invoking score encompassing such inspirational anthems as the yearning "Music of My Soul," the steadfast "Memphis Lives In Me" and the exhortive "Say A Prayer," melodically referencing early gospel and jump-band harmonies, augmented by efficient ( if occasionally lead-footed ) expository soliloquies.

Black Ensemble alumnus Daryl Brooks' direction of a vibrant cast, led by Liam Quealy and Aerie Williams, for this Porchlight production offers audiences another opportunity for gratitude over the company's move to the Ruth Page arts center. The cozy auditorium's close-up actor-to-audience proximity facilitates an empathetic excitement permeating every corner of the room right up to the rousing hand-clapping finale "They Can't Steal Your Rock-and-Roll" ( but look for the Shirelles-styled "Someday" to be the song warbled in the car on the way home ).


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