By Bob Evans
The Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City scores a grand slam with their most current production “Memphis,” that features an over-packed, cast of performers who could lead almost any production, and runs through June 24.
In the case of “Memphis,” smaller is better as this small upcoming theatre company competes with the bigger equity companies with this show. “Memphis” brings a simple story of the early years of Rock and Roll, the music of Beale Street, and the racial tension of the 1950s.
“Memphis” tells the story of a white, lightly-educated, ne’er-do-well, Huey Calhoun, who can’t seem to hold a job. Despite his lack of education and inability to hold a job, Huey possesses an ear and affinity to the music played in the Black nightclubs on Memphis’ Beale Street.
Huey wants to take the rhythmic music out of the darkness and introduce the sound to the all-White radio listeners. To do so, he resorts to some risky tricks to get even a few minutes on a local radio station. In doing so, he shakes up the listeners, gets some immediate good results, eventually earns his own radio show, and becomes the number one disc jockey in Memphis.
As Huey builds his listening audience, he becomes romantically attracted to a Black singer from the nightclub where he first encountered the upbeat Rhythm and Blues music. Felicia Farrell steals Huey’s heart much to the displeasure of both his mom and Felicia’s older brother, Delray.
Problems arise from this coupling of different races. Remember this is the 1950s and early 60s about the same time as Dick Clark and Bandstand began on TV. And, this was The South, so attitudes there were more divided than in The North. Inter-racial dating was not accepted, and inter-racial marriage forbidden in some states. Results of Huey and Felicia’s romance leads to some frightening, near-tragic results.
Expect amazing singing and acting from the two leads, Brianna Woods and Patrick Lewallen. “Memphis” allows both of them to deliver their character but also highlight that character with their amazing vocal talents. They set the pitch for “Memphis,” and the vocal talent never fades from superb. Every performer with a vocal solo or duet soars to new heights with this score. Damron R. Armstrong uses his vocal talents to add an exclamation point to the vocal master ensemble he has established.
While the technical aspects match the quality of the performances, special note needs made of the choreography and costumes. Sharp invigorating dance makes the show come alive, and all to the credit of Christopher Barksdale-Burns. He has the cast moving like a Broadway ensemble, and even non-dancers look professional in this production. What a great concept and deployment of the dance piece to make “Memphis” move and grove. But, even the best move and groove would not make the show sparkle without the beautiful, bright time-sensitive costumes, mostly devised by Damron R. Armstrong. The costumes bring snap and sparkle to the show and provide the extra element to a classy production. Also worthy of note are the sound and lighting. All combined, the technical aspects of “Memphis” elevate the show to knock-your-socks-off standing.
But, without music, “Memphis” would not be “Memphis,” so credit the orchestra for providing a velvety-jazz background on which the play unfolds. With a lesser band, the show would fall flat. Not so with the Black Rep rendition of the show. The band is stellar, under the direction of Julian Goff. The music equals the script, the actors, the vocals, the dancing. What a great sound to underlay this production. And with the band, vocals, and dance, the sound matters to balance all to ensure audience enjoyment. What a wonderful combination.
The cast is led by Patrick Lewallen as Huey Calhoun, Brianna Renee Woods as Felicia Farrell. Supporting them are Damron R. Armstrong as Delray Farrell, Brad Shaw as Gator, Douglass Walker as Bobby, Bridget MacNevins-Pfeiffer as Gladys, Marshall Rimann as Simmons, Jacquelyn Price understudy for Felicia. The ensemble members are: Nathaniel Rassson, DaShawn Young, Rob Hallifax, Micah Adams, Mike Brown, Tiffany Sipple Harper, Omari Collins, Susan Williams, Kathleen Marx, Nan Lippincott, Austin Schreck, Claudia Copping, Gideon Madison.
The show is directed by Damron R. Armstrong. He is assisted by the artistic staff: Melva Brownlee, assistant to director; Jeff Eubanks, sound designer; Jamie Leonard, lights; Laura Swan, sound; Christopher Barksdale-Burns, choreographer; Lamar Sims, vocal director; Damron R. Armstrong and Susan Williams, costumes; Annettte Armstrong, box office.
The band is: Julian Goff as music director and percussion; Mark Johnson, bass; Andrew Bonci, guitar; Britney Slaughter, keyboard; Lamar Simms, keyboard; Lois Neal, trombone; Lawrence Jackson, trumpet; Kaytee Dietrich, reeds; Gerald Turner, reeds.
“Memphis” opened May 31 and runs through June 24 in the Penn Valley Theatre (inside the Technology Building). Tickets for “Memphis” can be purchased through The Black Rep website and in person at the box office prior to each performance.
Tags: “Memphis”, The Black Rep, Penn Valley College, Kansas City Theatre, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment