Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Turn Up that Dial!

Memphis

Loreigna Sinclair and Sean Okuniewicz Photo: Ben Krantz

Book and Lyrics by David Bryan
Music and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Brendan Simon
Berkeley Playhouse, Berkeley

Until March 15, 2020

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Wow. I am blown away by “Memphis” at Berkeley Playhouse in the Julia Morgan Theater.

Fantastic singing? Check.
Soul-moving choreography? Yes!
Superb direction? Praise be!
Double-dutch jump roping? Whooo-eey!

This Tony award winning musical (which had its inception at TheatreWorks in Mountain View) is inspired by the story of Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJ's to play black music in the racially-charged 1950s. Jim Crow could segregate people, but not radio airwaves.

From the beginning, “Memphis” pulls you into the music, dares you to sit still in your seat, largely due to Brendan Simon’s keen direction of the spirit of the play. It’s Saturday night in a swinging nightclub in the black section of town, and the opening number “Underground” brings us right into the mix. There’s dancing, laughing, and drinking as everyone lets loose. The live band led by Daniel Alley lays down a beat that pulses through the scene.

Into this segregated space walks a gawkish, bespectacled white guy, Huey Calhoun (Sean Okuniewicz) who is drawn to the music he loves. Okuniewicz is jaw droppingly good, and his geeky appearance belies the powerhouse singing, acting, and dancing talent that bubbles forth like a secret spring. He is a joy to watch, and there could not have been a better casting choice.

Huey approaches the owner of the record store that caters white music (e.g., Perry “Coma”) to white customers and insists that he can increase sales by spinning 45rpm discs of black music, which he does. The owner doesn’t understand black music but he does money, and gives Huey a job.

Loreigna Sinclair and Sean Okuniewicz Photo: Ben Krantz

Huey’s mission to bring black music to the masses leads him into closer contact with the amazing singer Felicia Farrell (Loreigna Sinclair, who leaves no doubt that her character is headed to stardom), along with her brother Del Ray (solid Jordan Olivier Verde) and friends like “big man” Bobby (Carious Mayberry) who spins across the stage like a wild sparkler to prove that he’s the guy who gives “Big Love.”

Loreigna Sinclair  Photo: Ben Krantz

Teenagers starved for stimulation crave the music that moves them, and Huey eventually soars to the top DJ spot in Memphis while Felicia’s career also accelerates. Such jubilance threatens the established order of racism and hatred that have a grip on whites like Huey’s mother Gladys (Deborah Del Mastro) and other more dangerous and harmful forces, some of which are sadly still with us.

Music sets the gears of change in motion, a change for the better as expressed in the song beautifully and soulfully sung by Gator (John-David Randle) at the end of Act I:

Say a prayer that change is a comin',
Say a prayer that hope is 'round the bend.
And if you pray that change is a comin', oh Jesus
Then may what you pray come true,
Amen.

In  “Change Don't Come Easy,” Del Mastro makes Huey’s mother more likable and funny as she sings the gospel of rhythm and blues, and we know she’s been redeemed. That change doesn’t come easy is wonderfully demonstrated in a scene where two girls, one white and one black (Claire Noel Pearson and Kamaria McKinney), do double dutch jump roping together. (If you’ve ever tried doing this, you’ll marvel at the skill and coordination needed.)

Memphis is where Martin Luther King was murdered, but it is also the city “where all the streets are paved with soul” and music is the past, present, and future. "Memphis" the musical brings that perspective home.

"Memphis," book and lyrics by David Bryan, lyrics by Joe DiPietro, directed by Brendan Simon. Berkeley Playhouse, Berkeley, through 3/15/20. Info: http://berkeleyplayhouse.org




CAST
HUEY CALHOUN  Sean Okuniewicz
FELICIA FARRELL  Loreigna Sinclair
DEL RAY FARRELL Jourdan Olivier-Verde
GLADYS CALHOUN Deborah Del Mastro
MR SIMMONS  CJ Smith
GATOR  Jon-David Randle
BOBBY Cadarious Mayberry
MR COLLINS / DJ / FATHER / GORDON GRANT Charles Woodson Parker
BUCK WILEY / MARTIN HOLTON / PHOTOGRAPHER Jordan Smith
WAILIN JOE / REV HOBSON / DJ / TRIO / ENSEMBLE Marcel Saunders
CLARA / MOTHER Jennifer Stark
FRANK DRYER / ENSEMBLE Joe Ayers
ETHEL / SELMA / ENSEMBLE Chanel Tilghman
PERRY COMO / ENSEMBLE  Z Hansen
BESSIE / ENSEMBLE  Maya Phillips
LAVERNE / ENSEMBLE  Jennifer Frazier
TEENAGER / ENSEMBLE  Hanah Rose Nardone
DOUBLE DUTCH GIRL / ENSEMBLE  Claire Noelle Pearson
DOUBLE DUTCH GIRL / ENSEMBLE  Kamaria McKinney
TRIO / ENSEMBLE  Montel Anthony Nord
TRIO / ENSEMBLE  Jeffrey May Hyche


CREATIVE TEAM                             
Book and lyrics by David Bryan; lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Brendan Simon
Music Director Daniel Alley
Scenic Designer Sarah Phykitt
Lighting Designer Cameron Pierce
Costume Designer Lisa Danz
Sound Designer Lyle Barrere
Choreographer Christina Lazo




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