July 5-21, 2018
at Gateway Playhouse
Powerful, emotional, awe-inspiring. These are just a few of the reactions my fellow theater guests and I had after witnessing the magic of Memphis at The Gateway Playhouse this past Friday evening. As part of its 69th season lineup, this breathtaking show, directed by David Ruttura, uses brilliant characterization and stunning vocal performances to tackle challenging themes about love and relationships and the outside forces which threaten them.
This 2010 Tony Award winning show follows the protagonist, Huey Calhoun, embodied impressively by Josh Canfield, as he explores his passion for the music of his soul (“The Music of my Soul”) and finds himself at an underground black Rock and Roll bar in 1950’s Memphis. There he meets the owner of the bar, Delray Jones (the amazing Melvin Abston) and his talented, passionate younger sister Felicia Farrell (the show-stopping Moeisha McGill). This chance meeting begins an exciting, inspiring, and even treacherous journey as Huey becomes the first white DJ to play black music in Memphis. His budding romantic relationship with Felicia, much to the chagrin of her overprotective brother, and a ground swell of individuals not ready to understand or condone Calhoun’s choices (both on the air and off) makes for a plot full of scenes so touching and profound, that there were moments during the show where the audience refrained from applause- so unwilling were we to miss a single word.
This show was not only impressively directed and produced, but all aspects seemed to harmonize effortlessly, allowing the show’s true themes to shine bright. Just as Polonius warns his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that clothing makes the man, we see how clothing is used symbolically in Memphis as well. The Costume Design, which was based on the original designs by Paul Tazewell, really brought characters like Calhoun to life, as well as Bobby (the entertaining Demone) and Gator (the talented Horace. V. Rogers). There is one scene in Act II, in which Huey literally disrobes in order to illustrate the metaphorical attempts to strip away his identity. Powerful moments like these are found frequently throughout the play, and are further strengthened by the actors who take the play’s emotional themes and breath life into them. The vocal performances, directed by the talented and genial Jeffrey Hoffman, likewise transcend the sphere of entertainment only, and make the show a spellbinding and cathartic experience. There were so many remarkable moments that I could not bring to list them all, but I promise that even one song from Canfield or McGill is worth the price of admission!
I recommend that everyone see this show. Both Abston and Rogers characters’ had me in tears at different points in the show, and even the actors themselves felt the impact of such a performance. Not only will you be thoroughly entertained by the talents of the entire cast (there is not a weak link on that stage), but you will be witnessing a play which leading actress Moeisha McGill calls timely, as it draws attention to important messages about love, relationships, and tolerance. So if you need to “Scratch [that] Itch” for excellent theater and want to see a performance which will make you want to “Stand Up” while the amazing performances “Tear Down the House,” then head to The Gateway and enjoy the talent explosion that is Memphis. After such a show you will be singing along with Huey Calhoun as he proclaims that “Memphis Lives in Me”!
"It ain't your music to take."
Illiterate white disc jockey Huey Calhoun heard those warnings more than once and in frightening ways, but they did nothing to deter him from playing the R&B and gospel sounds of local black neighborhoods in this story of race and rebellion, told with unflinching detail in "Memphis" at The Gateway Playhouse in Bellport.
Loosely based on real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, the show ran nearly three years on Broadway. It also won the 2010 Tony Award for best musical despite some critics' complaints that it was uninspired, derivative (many thought "Hairspray" did it better, seven years earlier) and lacked any truly memorable songs even with its fine score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan.
The Broadway production succeeded in large part because of its talented cast, and that holds true at The Gateway. Director David Ruttura (associate director of "School of Rock" on Broadway) has assembled a group of Broadway and regional regulars that easily overcomes the play's weaknesses, which are what they are.
Josh Canfield is memorable as Huey, a complicated man who learned early on to get by with his fast-talking bluster, eventually parlaying that into a career in radio, then TV, that made him "the most popular man in Memphis." Though he could easily manage it, Canfield by no means carries the show. Moeisha McGill gives a powerful, insightful performance as Felicia Farrell, the black singer who, against all odds, falls for Huey, and their unaccepted relationship gives the show most of its dramatic intensity.
Melvin Abston as Felicia's overly protective brother, Delray, has the smoothest vocals ever as he starts things off with "Underground." And when mute bartender Gator (Horace V. Rogers, playing a man who hadn't spoken since witnessing his father's lynching) finally opens up with "Say a Prayer," well, watch out. Then there's Leslie Alexander, who portrays Huey's overworked, downtrodden mom, until, that is, she lets loose with "Change Don't Come Easy" and blows the roof off the place.
There are uncomfortable moments in "Memphis," to be sure, as it delves (with occasionally tough language) into the painful race relations of the South in the ’50s. When Huey refuses to use white dancers instead of his black regulars to attract a network TV show, he all but seals his doom. And, of course, makes us love him all the more!
Long Island Advance
Hockadoo! “Memphis” has opened at The Gateway, capturing a pivotal moment in our history and culture.
It’s the 1950s. In Tennessee, Jim Crow laws are in effect and everyone still listens to the radio. Here, the action unfolds amongst the smoky, still-segregated clubs, where a goofy, lovable Huey Calhoun (Josh Canfield) falls for the forbidden: rock ‘n’ roll music and Felicia Farrell (Moeisha McGill), an up-and-coming black singer. Based loosely on real-life disc jockey Dewey Philips, Calhoun plays ‘race music’ to white teenagers via his radio show, and a cultural revolution ensues.
At surface level, “Memphis” tells the tale of rock ‘n’ roll, with high-octane dancing and a totally original soundtrack by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan. In between the rousing, joyful numbers, several potent moments serve as stark reminders of our historical reality: a daughter slapped for listening to black music, a slur rolled too easily off of a tongue, a gunshot.
This Gateway production features two talented young leads, both Equity Actors. Canfield nails Huey’s aloofness and eccentricity with prowess. Vocally, he demonstrates power that doesn’t falter, from “The Music of My Soul” to the classic, penultimate “Memphis Lives in Me.” Though their characters seem like the unlikeliest pair, Canfield with McGill as Felicia Farrell are irresistible. From the moment we first hear McGill, she wins us over, soaring through powerhouse numbers like “Colored Woman,” and tender moments like “Love Will Stand,” that showcase her vulnerability while demonstrating her vocal range, from belting to a delicate falsetto.
The two are well supported throughout. Melvin Abston is formidable on stage as Delray, Felicia’s protective older brother, who owns the nightclub. His heartfelt warning, “She’s My Sister,” is a compelling portrait of privilege: Huey may be, racially, ahead of his time, but doesn’t have to worry about his safety in the same way that Felicia and Delray do. It is delivered passionately in Abston’s booming bass.
A huge ensemble cast brings life to the stage during highlight numbers like “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night” and “Radio.” With new choreography by Gerry McIntyre and Debbie Roshe, the numbers are tight and animated, showcasing a central theme: music bridging the gap between black and white teenagers.
With direction from Dave Ruttura and costumes straight from the National Tour, Memphis is a timely piece being presented for the first time ever at The Gateway. You’ll no doubt be clapping along and tapping along to the beat, but also forced to think about this turning point, race relations, and how ‘black’ music was — and still is — appropriated for white audiences.
One of the night’s most powerful moments came when Horace V. Rogers as Gator, who up until that point hadn’t spoke a word since his father’s lynching, brought tears to the entire house with “Say a Prayer,” delivering a message of optimism as an American flag-painted backdrop fell back into place. As “Memphis” opened just days after celebrating July 4, it served as a sobering reminder that this is America, and not that long ago, either.
There’s a line somewhere in Act II about how people ‘tire’ of rebels, after Calhoun turns down a TV offer, refusing to replace black dancers with white ones for the program. The ending isn’t necessarily happy, but leaves the audience with introspection: Would we stand up to injustices around us? Would we have been as brave as Huey or Felicia?
Still, the message here is to follow your heart, and your dreams. Persist. Fight back and lead with love. After all, it will stand when all else falls.
It’s hard to believe we’re halfway through the Gateway Playhouse’s summer season, with the rock ’n’ roll sensation Memphis currently rocking the theater in Bellport. Memphis made quite a splash on Broadway during its run there, earning four Tony Awards, including for Best Musical. From the first scene of Memphis it’s clear why.
Starting with the raw and real ballad “Underground” we’re taken back in time to 1950s Tennessee, where people were referred to as black or white and segregation was the norm. The underground “black” club, owned by Delray Jones (Melvin Abston), where his sister Felicia Farrell (Moeisha McGill) headlines, is the place that this tale of love, rock ’n’ roll and revolution begins.
In walks the very white Huey Calhoun (Josh Canfield), an awkward young man who almost instantly falls in love with both the music and the club’s sultry singer Felicia. Calhoun is a liberal-minded soul in a time when the majority of the population was racist. He promises Felicia and her skeptical, protective brother that he’ll get her music on the radio and make her a star. With some hilarious antics, our young and eager Calhoun becomes the most popular DJ in Memphis, the first in Memphis to play “colored” music on a “white” radio station. Canfield’s portrayal of the overeager, love-struck boy is adorably endearing. He’s the beacon of light in this sometimes-dark story, and the pairing of Canfield and McGill as Huey and Felicia is phenomenal—their chemistry sizzles on stage and you can’t help but root for this couple, even though the odds are stacked against them.
The captivating cast pulls you into their story and, before you know it, you’re enthralled with the incredibly talented cast of performers. McGill commands the stage with a voice as smooth and silky as melted chocolate. The husky quality to her tone is alluring and contrasts perfectly with the clear, powerful voice of Canfield as the lovable, idealistic Huey.
The mighty vocals of Abston and Horace V. Rogers as Gator are awe-inspiring. When the formerly-mute character Gator begins to sing “Say A Prayer,” you’d better hold on, because you’re in for quite a ride and will be blown away by Rogers’ intensity, the words seeming to come from deep in his soul. Both men are powerhouses, fully committed to every number.
With a story that’s timely and undeniably controversial, the cast sang and danced their hearts out, making for one truly amazing theatrical experience. You become so immersed in the lives of the characters that when intermission comes you’re left blinking, stunned and voracious for more.
The second act is even more compelling, as the characters are tested and tempted at every turn. Forces outside of their control are dissolving Felicia and Huey’s bond. The promise of fame and stardom in New York is too enticing for Felicia to pass up. The ballad “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails” is Felicia’s love song to Huey that will tug at your heartstrings.
Do Felicia and Huey stay together? Does Felicia become as famous as she always dreamed she’d be? In an uncertain time in our nation’s history, this original production uses the bonds of love and family to illustrate the atmosphere of America in the 1950s. The love story between Felicia and Huey is at the center of the turmoil and violence encircling them. Bringing the best of Broadway to Long Island is what Gateway does best, and Memphis is no exception.