Remember the 1950’s early days? Do you remember when KC’s own WHB was one of the first all Rock ‘n Roll stations in America? Well, even if you are not that old, “Memphis” at the White Theatre in the Kansas City Jewish Community Center takes you there with a look at the music scene and the integration of Rhythm & Blues into the Rock ‘n Roll era.
The story begins when a young white man dares to enter a Beale Street Blues joint because he loves the music. The ensuing racial clash depicts a situation fresh and new to audiences. The Rhythm & Blues club owner wants to protect the music of his soul and not share with the white intruder.
The visitor, wants to bring Rhythm & Blues out from the confinement of Beale Street and onto the airwaves of Memphis and into the homes of the population. If he can get a DJ gig somewhere–anywhere, he knows he can sell the music young people want to hear in a era when Perry Como, Patti Page, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and similar artists filled radio air time.
Huey Calhoun, the wannabe DJ sees Rhythm & Blues as a unifying factor across racial divides. Based on a real character, Huey Calhoun, wanted to play new music. He strove to expand the appreciation of Rhythm & Blues for the white-dominated recording industry.
Therein lies the conflict that remains as relevant today as yesterday–racial divide. “Memphis” shows both sides in a fast-paced musical journey from our past that still continues. For this effort, The J collaborated with The Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City in presenting this musical production. Damron Russel Armstrong, founder of The Black Rep directed “Memphis” and introduced the J to some new faces that provided bravuras performances.
Huey Calhoun’s character captivates the audience from his entrance through the final curtain with a performance to signify that Tyler Rowe can carry a show and command the audience’s attention. Not a soul in the audience would not believe that the character he performs is not the actual living, breathing Huey Calhoun. Rowe remains on stage for 95 percent of the show with a strong physical performance that signifies that he can play any part. His stellar voice and his acting ability mesmerize the audience.
After a performance, Rowe said this was a role of a lifetime. He’s right. He excelled.
Alongside him, Huey’s love interest, Felicia Farrell, played by Valerie Chamberlain, belts out the Blues ballads and takes ownership of the role and the music. Her character shows the distrust and fear of encroaching into a media basically owned and operated by the white race. She knows the anger and hatred she faces and struggles to find solid footing and trust in both Huey and her talent.
A young gentleman in the audience said, “When she sang, I cried.” Even at his young age, he understood the pain, fear, and passion of her music. What more could an actress/vocalist want?
Equally impressive, the secondary leads, Douglass Walker and Joy Richardson gave stunning performances. Walker played a protective brother who advocated separation of races, and Richardson represented a similar stance from the traditional Southern white race. Their prejudice provides the fodder of the tension. Both present strong characters mired in their beliefs and learn to change as the story unfolds.
Walker and Richardson both performed in almost every venue in the KC Metro, but “Memphis” gives them the opportunity to let loose with their acting and vocal performances in ways that other productions did not. Each performs solos that showcase their talent. The characters they present show that they understand how to build and maintain characters. Bravo to both for superior performances.
The other performers who presented great characters include Robert Vardiman, Hewleek McKoy, and Marshall Rimann. They provided the smalller characters who stoke the flames as the story unwinds.
Hats off to the production team who bring this musical masterpiece to the local audiences. As the winner of a Broadway Tony Award for Best Musical among other awards, the show proves to be a winner. The set, lighting, sound, choreography, props, costumes, direction–all demonstrate attention to detail to entertain the audiences.
Overall, The J and Black Rep collaborated in a super-successful production of “Memphis.” The combined mixture of Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll painted against a background of racial conflict and changing American values creates a beautiful background for a stunning musical.
The cast for “Memphis” is: Tyler Rowe, Valerie Chamberlain, Douglass Walker, Robert Vardiman, Hewleek McKoy, Joy Richardson, Marshall Rimann, Trevor French, Matt Fowler, Kyle Anderson, Pancha Brown, Kameron Cole, Jenny Hines, Sharon Johnson, Gracie King, Timothy Lawson, Lucas Lowry, Kathleen Marx, Reed Pearman, Micah Williams, Miles Wirth, and Terrace Wyatt, Jr.
Director, Damron Armstrong; musical director, Pamela Watson; choreographer, Christopher Barksdale; scenic designer, Jeremy Smith; lighting/projections designer, Justin Dudzik; assistant lighting designer, Kelsi Richardson, lighting programmer, Emma Davis; costume designer, Eboni Fondren; properties designer, Sarah Cooper; sound designer, Jonathan Robertson; assistant sound designer, Hannah Zimmerman, stage manager, Megan Segars; assistant stage manager, Betsy Wendorff; stage crew Tanner Kelley; audio mixer, Erin Auman; assistant stage manager Betsy Wendorff; followspot operators, Chris Greenfield & Jacob Tuchscherer; dresser, Chelli Tillman; scenic painters, Jeremy Smith & Justin Dudzik; specialty prop construction, Keith Wiedenkeller.