Walnut Street Theatre Presents: Memphis
“Memphis” – A Truly Thought Provoking Chronicle
Who would have thought that a white DJ playing “race music” would take the world by storm one day? Back in the 1950s the term “race music” was used for songs by African Americans who belted out rock-and-roll and blues. Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips took a revolutionary step towards demolishing the color barrier in the world of radio by becoming one of the first white DJs to play such tunes.
Inspired by the same theme, Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia is putting on a production called Memphis, set to run through July 12. The staging in one word can be described as being “musically sensational”. Joe DiPietro has penned the script, while Christopher Sutton plays protagonist Huey Calhoun. The plot starts off about how he ends up breaking the same color barrier like Philips.
Similar, yet different…
This is where the story carves its own niche. It doesn’t portray the hardcore partying lifestyle of Philips, nor does it show his death due to methamphetamine abuse. On the contrary, there is a romantic angle involved in this musical – Huey falls head over heels in love with a black singer, Felicia Farell, played by Kimber Sprawl. He begins a crusade of sorts spurred on by his romanticism and search for music of the inner soul. Eventually Huey and Felicia clash as she wants to make her as an artist, while he wants to focus on social progress.
Director Richard Stafford has done a great job in depicting a documentary type soiree, which is a blend of both fact and fiction. Black and white images of Huey being arrested are flashed before the audience, while other montages show him in the lead at a protest and both white and black dancers performing at one of his concerts – these intensify feelings towards Huey and his journey. Special mention must be made about Barbieri’s set pieces and Gail Baldoni’s fantastic costumes aptly depicting the 1950s era. The divergence from the original story has earned its fair share of criticisms, with some calling it a tad misleading since the musical claims to be based on real events, but the dazzling performances more than make up for this tiny flaw. Mary Martello as Huey’s mother is amazing, as is Kimber with her scintillating voice. Huey is also great although he is clearly more in element at the beginning – innocent and passionate about what he believes.
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