The Arkansas Repertory Theatre had a big order to fill with taking on “Memphis the Musical” this month. “Memphis” has a resume dripping with awards and recognitions, including winning Tony Awards in 2010 for Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best orchestrations and Best Musical. You read that right. Best Musical.
Apart from that high brow laundry list, I knew a couple things about “Memphis:” I knew the music was important (duh, it’s a musical), I knew it was about an unconventional love in the Civil Rights Era and I knew that the cast was head over heels for the production, thanks to a preliminary interview.
Needless to say, expectations were high.
But then the lights dimmed and the music came in hot as Delray’s downtown club appeared on stage. The trumpets sent electricity through the crowd as Tony Perry as Delray and Jasmine Richardson as his little sister, Felicia, poured it on heavy in “Underground.” The opening number ended and we all knew this show was going to be different.
Directed and choreographed by Lynne Kurdziel-Fomato and written by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, the story follows our bumbling hero with radio fame on the brain, Huey Calhoun, from following his ear into Delray’s (a place “his kind” didn’t frequent), to New York execs, to unexpected change and anticipated heartbreak, all over the airways of Memphis.
The audience wastes no time falling for Huey, played by Brent DiRoma who has a zeal and blind enthusiasm that sometimes gets him into hot water, especially when he sets his sights on Felicia. The star-crossed love story that blooms around Huey and Felicia is one of fierce loyalty and an against-all-odds fervor, DiRoma's and Richardson’s performances in just as close harmony as their voices.
As promised by the cast, the music in this show makes you want to jump out of your seat. “Ain't Nothin' But a Kiss,” “Radio” and “Tear Down the House” make it impossible to sit still, while the company’s Southern gospel “Make Me Stronger” and “Change Don't Come Easy” by Huey’s mother Gladys (played by Anne-Ngaire Martin) make you throw your hands up and shout “hallelujah.”
The other part of this emotional roller coaster gives us songs like “Colored Woman,” “She’s My Sister” and “Say a Prayer” that serve up strength, persistence and soul. If you don’t end Act 1 with lump in your throat, you might want to check your pulse.
The chemistry of the entire cast glowed on stage, making the jokes more hilarious, the trials more tragic and the music more meaningful. The ensemble was every bit as mesmerizing as Richardson’s voice, and Katie Emerson’s portrayal of a teen in love with the underground sound is laugh-out-loud funny.
Long story short, go see “Memphis the Musical” at The Rep. It’s funny and powerful and musically intoxicating.
The show runs until Sept. 28 and is already being hailed as one of The Rep’s best. The demand was so high, they've even added a Saturday matinee on Sept. 27.
For more information about the play or to purchase tickets online, visit The Rep’s website. You can also call (501) 378-0405 or visit the theatre box office downtown at 601 Main St., Little Rock.
(Just go see the show. You'll get it.)