Theatre Review: ‘Memphis’ at Aurora Theatre

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Aurora Theatre is currently presenting the Tony-winning (2010) musical “Memphis,” which will run through Aug. 30. The show is co-produced with Theatrical Outfit, where it will run Sept. 10-20 at the Rialto Center for the Arts.

“Memphis” is directed by the Outfit’s Tom Key, with musical direction by Ann-Carol Pence and choreography by Waverly Lucas. It has a book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, music and lyrics by David Bryan (Bon Jovi’s keyboardist). Both Lucas and DiPietro won Tony Awards.

I can tell you that “Memphis” at the Aurora is red hot and working on all cylinders. I don’t usually do comparisons, but it’s every bit as good as the fine national touring company that played the Fox Theatre in 2012, and in some ways better. The friend with whom I saw Aurora’s version pronounced it one of the ten best shows he’s ever seen in Atlanta, and he’s been an esteemed drama teacher for 100 years (actually 35).

It’s Memphis, Tennessee, in the early 1950’s. Much of America is booming in post World War II “Leave It To Beaver” time. But underneath the white bread serenity, in Memphis’ black underground Beale Street nightclubs, an earthy, joyous, soul-stirring music is bursting to make itself heard. “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” said Victor Hugo.

Enter Huey Calhoun (Travis Smith), a high school dropout, white, scrappy, eager for a different sound and a different life. He pops into an all-black club called Delray’s one night and at first is eyed suspiciously. “Do you know where you are?” someone asks him.

Huey begins to win the crowd over when he sings “The Music of My Soul”; he hears the beautiful Felicia (Naima Carter Russell) sing and is smitten by her voice and by her. Felicia’s protective brother Delray (Cecil Washington Jr.) is understandably wary: Crossing racial lines in the 1950’s was dangerous, and “Memphis” does not shy away from showing the injustice and ugliness of racism.

I don’t have to tell you that, sadly, the times we’re living in give an urgent immediacy to the racial issues raised in “Memphis.” This show zaps the audience with an electric current that is theatrical, yes, but also highly topical and grounded in real life.

But “Hockadoo,” folks, as Huey likes to say, the play is also funny; don’t think for a moment it’s not.

Huey gets a job at a local radio station (his character is based loosely on Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips, who first got Elvis Presley played on the radio) and tells Felicia he’ll get her music played on the air. This is a bold claim because Huey is not even a deejay yet. But he has a crazy kind of charisma and a reckless confidence that wins people over, including his own mother (Megan McFarland), who is initially horrified at Huey’s fondness for “race music”—and for Felicia.

To say “Memphis” is well cast is an understatement; it is flawless. In addition to those already mentioned, there is the always wonderful Eugene H. Russell IV, Eric Moore, William S. Murphey, Matt Lewis, and a dream ensemble. I can’t mention them all (they’re in the program!), but suffice it to say there are people in the ensemble who can and have carried shows all by themselves.

There are some great songs. When “Memphis” opened on Broadway, some critics carped that the music was really pseudo soul-rock-blues and not the real thing. I say phooey to that: As musical theatre “Memphis” rocks. By the way, the “house band,” under Ms. Pence’s direction, sounds great.

I must end with two people. Naima Carter Russell, as Felicia, acts and sings like a dream, and you must not miss her.

If I had to narrow the brilliance of this show down to two words, they would be Travis Smith. I have seldom seen a more fully realized performance. He just does it all: He is Huey—the walk, the voice (speaking and singing), the sly, knowing innocence; his infectious, comic vibrancy which spills over the footlights. Like Ms. Russell, he is not to be missed. Neither is his show.

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