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All Photos by MELISSA TAYLOR
Every so often a great musical comes along with an opening number that is so spell-binding it seems like it should be a grand finale. That is the case currently with the extraordinary Theatre Under the Stars production of the Tony Award-Winning show, MEMPHIS – The Musical, now playing at the Sarofim Theatre of Houston’s Hobby Center.
Led by sensational vocalist, Warren G. Nolan Jr. (playing the role of Delray, owner of the black nightclub that bears his name), the huge cast of gifted singers, dancers and actors seems to literally explode on stage in a whirling blaze of wonderful music and brilliant choreography (designer, Jessica Hartman) for the sensational song, “Underground.” When the rocket-fueled voice of the club’s singer, Felicia (Simone Gundy) joins that number, we know we are leaving on a jet plane for truly exceptional entertainment. That stratospheric level would be maintained throughout the evening in what must be called a Don’t-Miss Show this season.
Conceptualized by George W. George, the show’s book & lyrics by Joe DiPietro are at times witty, at times poignant.
The lush and powerful music & lyrics of David Bryan then complete the solid core of this well-constructed tale, gently based on the true story of Dewey Phillips, the 1950’s Memphis radio personality credited with being the first white disc jockey to play black music on the air. Here, that part falls to actor, Barrett Riggins, in the role of deejay, Huey Calhoun. His was a very creative, whiny-voiced, kooky characterization, which at first just seems annoying, but soon wins over the audience with the uniquely winning personality that makes Huey a star. Rising to stardom with him is lovely Felicia, Delray’s sister and lead vocalist at his nightclub. With her electrifying voice, solid performance, beautiful costumes, and shapely good looks, the attractive Miss Gundy should rise to stardom herself.
The twists and turns of this intriguing plot emanate from the evolving romance between this off-beat white deejay and the lovely black singer with whom he falls in love. Delray does not approve, and even Huey’s somewhat racist mother (a sensational performance from Julie Johnson) rejects that relationship until Huey’s rise from bumbling department store stock boy to success as a leading radio personality brings her the keys to a new home.
Along the way we encounter a seemingly endless parade of knock-out numbers that showcase the vocal and dance talents of this incredible cast, while being visually embraced by eye-popping lighting effects as exciting as the music.
There are rich gospel sounds for “The Music of My Soul,” while club performer, Wailin’ Joe (Jared Howelton), rocks the stage in his dazzling red sequined jacket for the full company’s, “Scratch My Itch” number, looking every inch like a tribute to the late Little Richard. Romance springs when Huey and Felicia sing the lovely, “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Kiss,” and Mr. Riggins’ on-air comedy skills are on full display for the tongue-twisting hilarity of, “Hello My Name is Huey.”
The dynamic energy of the full company’s, “Everybody Wants to be Black on Saturday Night,” rocks the room with smooth harmonies from three gents playing the “Be Black Trio,” a typical guy group of the era. There is another wonderful taste of the gospel influence in black music for the beautifully choreographed, “Make Me Stronger” number, which at this performance featured a delicious solo from Ms. Johnson, and an audience-pleasing dance cameo from Houston Ballet star, Harper Watters. Gundy brings down the house singing, “Colored Woman,” and Riggins out-wiggles Elvis in his uproarious, “Radio” number. There is so much excitement here that even a handicapped character named, Gator (Avionce Hoyles), a mute since a long-ago childhood trauma, suddenly comes to life for the wrenching desperation of his powerful, “Say a Prayer” that closes Act One.
Space precludes my run-down of the equally stunning Act Two that has countless surprises of its own, like when Huey’s radio show crosses over to TV, and the janitor, Bobby (Sheldon Henry) lights up the stage for the memorable song, “Big Love.”
I must add that I saw the original Memphis production on Broadway years ago and it was wonderful. I correctly predicted at the time that it would win the 2010 Tony for Best Musical. But guess what? I sincerely think this TUTS offering, with its marvelous all-Houstonian orchestra (Musical Director, Darryl Ivey), locally created first-class staging (Scenic Designer, Kevin Depinet, Sound Designer, Andrew Harper, Lighting Designer, Ryan O’Gara & Costume Designer, Leon Dobkowski), with half of its stellar cast local Houstonians themselves, and with magnificent direction from Dan Knechtges, everything has combined to bring Houston an even more spectacular production than the Broadway original. One last warning though! Don’t race off to the parking lot during the curtain calls or you will miss one of the most delightful bondings between a cast and audience that I have ever had the pleasure to witness.
MEMPHIS – The Musical continues through March 4th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, & Sunday at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday evenings at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. For tickets visit the website at http://www.thehobbycenter.org, or call (713) 558-8887 locally, and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).