By Patsy Isenberg
The Tony Award winning musical, “Memphis,” at The New McCree Theatre, running through Saturday, Oct. 19, has a huge cast of talented local singers, dancers, and actors and is directed by Cathye Johnson.
The musical tries to take the audience back to the 50s. And it does, using music to illustrate the changes that started taking place at that time. The production has 22 actors listed in the playbill and several of them play multiple roles.
“Memphis” is a spirited and eye-opening reminder of how things used to be. It’s uncomfortable and frank in its telling of the story. But the characters are likable and it has some funny moments. In the McCree version, they’re all singing and dancing up a storm, 50s style.
The musical tells the story of a struggling, young, white Memphis disc jockey who loves black music and, when he finally gets a job on the radio, plays it despite his boss’s objections.
His mother objects, too, especially when he shows a romantic interest in a black R & B singer he meets and tries to promote. But the story shows that it’s the way things were back then, especially in the South.
The DJ, lovable Huey Calhoun, is played by Joshua Bleau. The singer he likes, sweet-voiced Felicia Farrell, is played by Marianna Gillespie. The other main characters are played by Daniel Lopez as Felicia’s over-protective brother and Ann Oravetz as Huey’s perplexed mother. Steven Visser plays several roles. Visser portrays all of the older white businessmen Huey has dealings with who think things should remain racially divided.
The “McCree-Memphis” band plays all the original music. There’s Phil Young directing and on keyboards, Ulysses Bailey on sax, Nick Baker on bass guitar, Aurelia Gooden on piano, Ben Jackson on lead guitar, Matthew July on trumpet and Laron “Davey” Wade playing drums.
The book and lyrics were written by Joe DiPietro with music and lyrics by David Bryan, and the production played on Broadway for years.
The story is situated back in the day when almost all people could find on the radio were Perry Como, Patti Page, and Roy Rogers. The show makes a point of how “vanilla” that music sounded most of the time. Rock ‘n roll was just beginning and when Huey starts slipping black music on the turntable with more soul and rhythm, people (including white listeners) began to want that instead.
Serious social themes get into the story, too. Integration was happening in clubs, on the radio, in stores, in churches and even in people’s homes. And what of Huey’s and Felicia’s relationship? Well, not surprisingly, that didn’t go too easy.
For the McCree production, multiple sets had to be arranged. There was the store that Huey gets fired from, the radio station where he ends up working, the apartment he lives in with his Momma, the street, the black club, the church and a couple more that may come as a surprise to theatergoers. So, needless to say, it took a lot to move things around quickly. The director, Johnson is credited with that, scenic design. But there is also co-directing by Visser, stage managing and props by Billie Scott Lindo, musical directing by Young, sound design by Eric Williams and the background artist was Alfonso Foster. Brenda Glasschild choreographed this production and Johnnie Person was the vocal technician.
There was more help provided too. Costumes were provided by CCC & LDMT and Flint Community Players. The stage hands were Christopher & Christina Dunckel and Jacob Lawrence & Ensemble.
At intermission McCree Executive Director Charles Winfrey announced that on Nov. 9 the Delfonics will appear. The New McCree Theatre, since launching its partnership with Flint Community Schools, is at their new location inside Northwestern Preparatory Academy, G-2138 W. Carpenter Road, just down from their former location.
Upcoming performances are Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 17, 18 and 19 at 7 p.m. There also is a matinee performance on Saturday, Oct. 19 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5. Call 810-787-2200 or visit thenewmccreetheatre.com for more information.
Banner photo: “Memphis” cast onstage at the New McCree Theatre (photo by Patsy Isenberg).
EVM Staff Writer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.