by Terrance Mc Arthur
Once upon a time in the ’50s, a white guy named Huey wandered into a Black music club in Memphis, Tennessee, because he was captivated by the sounds he heard. He became a deejay, dumping Perry Como and introducing white youth to “race records,” the forerunners of rock-and-roll. That is the story of Memphis, a musical playing on the microstage of the Reedley Opera House, home of the River City Theatre Company, through July 29.
Based on the life of Dewey Phillips, a disk jockey who was one of the first to play black and white musicians on the same broadcast, this Tony-winning script tells of Huey Calhoun (Jonathan Wheeler), who loves the music and the singer Felicia (Camille Gaston) in the nightspot run by her brother Delray (Samuel Walls). Their forbidden love fuels Huey’s drive to promote Black music and bring the races together, in a society where their love was a crime.
Wheeler fuses the chutzpah of Vince Vaughn, the body contortions of Vincent D’Onofrio, and Dennis Weaver’s voice of Chester from Gunsmoke into a character that is hard to believe, but compelling to watch. Sometimes he’s a Tennessee Quasimodo; other times he’s a Casanova with a twang. At all times, he’s terrific.
Gaston can turn any role into a highlight. Put her in a seagull or octopus costume in The Little Mermaid, call her Gary Coleman in Avenue Q, make her a not-really-a-nun in Sister Act, or have her become legally drunk in the Rogue Festival’s S’Will, she can still blow anybody else off the stage with her power. When she belts, the rafters vibrate, and when she sings a torch song, call the fire department.
Walls smolders, embers of rage igniting as he watches Huey and Felicia fall into a dangerous passion. His songs are confrontations with white privilege, even when the white is poor white. Samuel soon leaves for the US Navy, the Valley theatre’s loss.
Lilly Dale Reed’s first RCTC role is Gladys, Huey’s bewildered mother, who doesn’t understand her son’s crossing of the color until she goes to a black church and hears the choir. The lady starts out as a racist stereotype welded to Vicki Lawrence’s “Mama” character with a touch of SNL’s The Church Lady, but transforms into a caring, warm supporter of change.
How can you say a silent figure is one of the best singers on the stage? Jeremy Salas manages that feat as Gator, an emotionally-scarred young man. Eloy Mireles plays a janitor-by-day club-rat-by-night who becomes a TV celebrity, investing it with warmth and spunk. Isaiah Bueno plays devil and angel as a Little Richardish rocker and a kindly preacher with a lively choir, and each one is a treat.
Chris Giese does a chucklesome turn as a high-haired DJ without a clue as to what’s hot and what’s not. Larry Ham pops up repeatedly, representing various voices from the prevailing culture. Steve Jones, executive director of RCTC, as the radio station owner who doesn’t understand Huey, but does understand ratings, is really something (meant in a good way).
Joseph Ham’s direction wondrously welds his multi-ethnic cast into a dynamic force, and Sarah Wiebe’s choreography is energetic and polished. Reedley may be way-way-way-way-way-off-Broadway, but hey, it’s good!
Reedley’s River City Theatre Company is located at 1720 10th Street, Reedley. Memphis continues on stage through July 29. For further information and to purchase tickets you can go to their website, or call 559-638-6500 or 866-977-6500.
If you love local theatre, be sure to check out our new Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors. The first 2 episodes are now up! You can check the podcast out on iTunes and Google Play, and also on podbean.
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