Hockadoo! Porchlight Music Theatre’s MEMPHIS bursts onto the stage with joy and earnest energy. Under the direction of Daryl Brooks, this musical sheds light on timely historical issues while milking the show’s sweetest, most exuberant moments for all they’re worth. Set in the 1950s, MEMPHIS follows the fictional white DJ Huey Calhoun (based on the real-life DJ Dewey Phillips) as he strives to overcome the city’s racial barriers—and attract radio listeners—by showcasing music from black artists on the radio. Along the way, Huey meets the aspiring young black singer Felicia Farrell. He aims to help Felicia find her place in the spotlight, and of course, also find a spot for him in his heart. Written by Daryl Adams and Joe DiPietro, MEMPHIS does not at all hide the realities of life in Memphis under the laws of Jim Crow. Yet the musical overall treats its subject matter with an optimistic sunniness and places the emphasis on Huey’s attempts to forge racial unity.
Though Porchlight’s production is by no means decadent, the design elements nicely situate us. Jacqueline Penrod and Richard Penrod’s set design allows for easy transition between a number of different locations, particularly as MEMPHIS relies on portraying life in the segregated neighborhoods of the titular city. The use of two DJ booths flanking either side of the stage helps define those as significant spaces for the piece. Bill Morey’s costume designs beautifully reflect his ability to design for period, and Felicia’s many dresses are especially stunning. Denise Karczewski’s lighting design underscores the atmosphere and significant moments in the piece.
MEMPHIS’s overall message of hope makes for an evening that provides many moments of joy—and that’s in no small part thanks to Porchlight’s incredible cast. The entire ensemble dances the night away to Christopher Carter’s bouncy, playful choreography. They handle the moves smoothly and with plenty of carefree smiles that lend a sense of effortlessness to the dancing. Thanks to Jermaine Hill’s music direction, they also harmonize effortlessly as well.
MEMPHIS wouldn’t succeed so mightily without the superb actors in the leading roles. As the eccentric Huey, Liam Quealy seems in his element. Quealy plays the role as appropriately quirky, but he has clearly done the work to find the truth in the character. Quealy’s Huey is outsized and out there when he needs to be, but he also nails the character’s underlying vulnerabilities. He’s a compelling vocalist, too. Aeriel Williams is magnificent as Felicia. She has an angelic singing voice but also finds power in every note. Quealy and Williams play off one another delightfully, and we truly believe that these two characters care for one another. Lorenzo Rush Jr. is appropriately gruff as Felicia’s protective older brother Delray, and the part allows him to showcase his deep, rich singing voice. Other standouts include Gilbert Domally as Gator, and the always charming James Earl Jones II as Bobby. Jones has a second act solo that turns into a sly showstopper.
Now is an especially timely moment to produce MEMPHIS, which makes the show’s relevance cut even deeper. But Brooks’s production also showcases the optimism and hope that arun deep in the musical. MEMPHIS reflects our times, but it also provides a needed dose of fun and catchy, expertly performed music.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s MEMPHIS runs through June 16 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Tickets are $38-$60. Visit PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.
Photo Credit: Michael Courier
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