By Colin Douglas
The Ruth Page Center for the Arts will be rockin’ and shakin’ through at least early June with the pulsating beat of 1950’s era rock ‘n roll, rhythm and blues in Porchlight Music Theatre’s electrifying Memphis.
Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s head-bobbing, hand-clapping, foot tapping 2010 four-time Tony Award-winning musical has finally arrived in a local Chicago production, bringing with it an evening of unbridled joy to usher in the Spring. Electrified by Daryl Brooks’ inspired and artistically perfect direction, this production is as moving as it is exciting. It features an onstage bandstand of polished accompaniment by Musical Director Jermaine Hill, along with more than two hours of spirited, period-perfect choreography, magnificently crafted by Christopher Carter, who also assisted Brooks in staging this story. Carter is assisted in choreographing by Reneisha Jenkins.
The show is loosely based on real life Memphis disc jockey, Dewey Phillips, who was a pioneer in bringing so much effervescent, bubbling Black music to white radio audiences and record-buyers. The somewhat predictable story tells of fictional Huey Calhoun, a young, white man from the other side of the tracks, who wanders one night into Delray’s, an African American Beale Street club. He’s drawn by his love for the infectious, soulful music, as well as the voice and beauty of the club’s phenomenal female vocalist, Felicia. This story, with its unabashed examination of the racial tension that raged during the early Civil Rights Movement, offers a score of R&B, rock, gospel and New Orleans blues.
As Felicia, Aeriel Williams is honest and natural, yet extraordinarily powerful and poignant, as the African American songstress with a dream of becoming a recording star. She stops the show with her powerhouse voice while moving the audience with genuinely touching moments of anguish, vulnerability and strength. Liam Quealy, every bit as charismatic as Broadway’s Chad Kimball (who created the role), is a bundle of energy. This gifted young man is so likable, as well as being a supremely talented actor/singer/dancer, in his own right. His hilarious exclamations of “Hock-a-doo,” his earnest love and devotion of Felicia and his rendition of such songs as “The Music of My Soul” and “Memphis Lives in Me” are impassioned and inspiring.
Chicago’s own Lorenzo Rush, Jr. brings his magnificently glorious voice and domineering presence to the role of Felcia’s brother, Delray, stopping the show cold with his passionately sung, “She’s My Sister.” As Bobby, the always outstanding James Earl Jones II, so terrific with his breakout hit song, “Big Love,” is a bottled up dynamo just waiting to bust loose. He plays this affable custodian turned singer with grit and honesty. And boyishly handsome Gilbert Domally eventually overcomes a terrible childhood trauma to find his own voice and strength through friendship, in “Say a Prayer.” The 50’s have never sounded more joyful.
Brooks’ spectacularly gifted ensemble, all of whom sing, dance and portray multiple supporting characters, is simply brilliant. Jacob Voigt is particularly excellent as Huey’s employer and reluctant supporter, Mr. Simmons. Nancy Wagner manages to make Huey’s racially opinionated mother, Gladys Calhoun, lovable. Her breakout song in Act II, “Change Don’t Come Easy,” is like the explosive burst of a bottle rocket. Both Ryan Dooley, opening the show as a drawling DJ at an all-white radio station, along with several other roles, and Isaiah Silva-Chandley, very funny as Buck Wiley and Martin Holton, are ensemble standouts. In fact, every singer and dancer in this musical could be the star of his or her own musical. There are no weak links in this chain!
Porchlight Music Theatre has become another “Broadway in Chicago” with this latest production. It features a fluid scenic design by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod and stunning array of period costumes by Bill Morey. Beautifully acted, sung and danced by some of the city’s most skilled talent, directed with spirit by Brooks, masterfully accompanied by Hill and creatively choreographed by Carter—this is one of the finest productions by an excellent theatre company. It’s phenomenally performed, majestically produced and, quite simply: Hock-a-doo not miss this production!
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “Memphis” through June 3 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Parkway, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.