Theater review: 'Memphis' a kick at the Garde


That's the celebratory exclamation characters occasionally yelp in "Memphis," and, really, I can think of no better way to express the impact of the musical staged at the Garde Arts Center Saturday.

The NETworks touring production of "Memphis" popped and fizzed. It was just a kick, from start to finish, from lead characters to ensemble players, from dance numbers to raft-raising songs.

"Memphis" may not have as wide a name recognition as, say, "Cats," so here are some basics for the uninitiated. "Memphis" earned four 2010 Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical. It features lyrics and book by Joe DiPietro, who wrote "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," and music and lyrics by David Bryan, better known as the keyboard player for Bon Jovi.

It tells the tale of a DJ named Huey in 1950s Memphis — he's a white DJ playing black music — and his relationship with a black singer named Felicia.

At the beginning of "Memphis," the way that Huey combats racism seems a bit too pat, the results a bit too rapid. His playing "race music" over the speakers at a department store prompts white shoppers to scoop up records by those black artists. But "Memphis" begins to show the hostility of those with ingrained prejudice and the complexity of living a life in 1950s America. It gets into thornier issues than most musicals do, particularly the struggle Felicia and Huey face as they both chase fame while trying to navigate racism.

But don't get the wrong idea. This is a Broadway musical, after all, and while it has a serious side, it boasts bountiful humor and a vivacious spirit.

The two leads certainly embodied that spirit. Huey has the potential to come off as a goofball at times, and while Joey Elrose found the comic moments — the character is a definite smart aleck — he made sure Huey had some depth, too. You felt for Huey when he feared losing Felicia and reverted to a state of reality-be-damned stubbornness.

Jasmin Richardson mined a strength and emotionality in Felicia, and she glittered with star power every time she sang. Her version of "Colored Woman" induced actual chills.

The buoyant music drives "Memphis," with the compositions referencing era-specific R&B and rock and gospel.

The dances likewise neatly echo 1950s history while finding their own theatrical life. The numbers were executed with pizzazz by the performers (although the opening "Underground" dance seemed oddly careful and needed more of a sense of abandon). Jerrial T. Young gets special props for looking as though gravity had no hold on him during his split leaps and funky moves in "Big Love." (For this NETworks tour, Sergio Trujillo's original Broadway choreography was recreated by Jermaine R. Rembert, and Christopher Ashley's original direction was recreated by Adam Arian.)

The production looked great. You had the costumes — lots of 1950s shiny shift dresses and sharp men's suits — and you had the scenery, with set pieces sliding in and out to represent a tiny radio booth or a flashy TV studio.

One more note: Pat Sibley made a strong impression as Huey's mother, creating a believable prejudiced-to-accepting arc. Her singing "Change Don't Come Easy" was a highlight. All you Garde regulars might fondly recall Sibley playing Frau Blucher in last year's NETworks tour of "Young Frankenstein." That, my friends, is what we call range.


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