Before he discovered Elvis, aspiring Memphis record producer Sam Phillips told the world exactly who he was looking for. “If I could find a white boy who could sing like a black man I’d make a million dollars,” he famously said.
Directed by Daryl D. Brooks, “Memphis,” now playing at Porchlight Music Theatre and inspired by the life of legendary Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam), dives head-first into an exploration of “race music” of the 1950s and how these records by African-American artists sparked the rock and roll revolution.
When: Through Jun 10
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $33 – $60
Run time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one intermission
Porchlight’s cast is unstoppable as it rips through the two dozen or so foot-pumping barn-burners that comprise the musical by David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (book, lyrics). Listen to Perry Como early on in Porchlight’s exuberant staging; you’ll hear a generation of button-down cardigans being kicked to the curb by a pair of funky go-go boots.
Fictional DJ Huey Calhoun (Liam Quealy), as the story tells it, is the vanguard of this cultural revolution. The story of the music is mostly seen through the lens of white experiences rather than the people who originated the genre. There are moments when that issue is in high relief, such as when Huey tells star-to-be Felicia Farrell (Aeriel Williams) that he doesn’t see color. Such blindness isn’t a privilege afforded people of color, Felicia chides him in a blistering response. When she further schools Calhoun on his ignorance (“You’ve got choices in this world I don’t. You get to be white whenever you want. I’m colored every time I step out my door,” she tells him), the moment is electric. The tension goes higher still when Felicia’s protective brother Delray (Lorenzo Rush Jr.) straight up accuses Huey of “stealing” her music.
What makes “Memphis” worth seeing is its mighty sound. Under the virtuosic music direction of Jermaine Hill, a quintet of on-stage musicians back the vocals with a sound that’s positively orchestral. The vocals are smoking hot — whether it’s the whole ensemble raising the rafters for the gospel truth of “Make Me Stronger,” or as a lone, clarion soloist searing the stage with “Colored Woman” (Williams) and “She’s My Sister” (Rush).
In Quealy’s high-energy rendition, Huey’s aim is pure: He exults in the transformative power of rock, and just wants to bring it to the masses. With the title tune, Quealy shines, filling the house with a voice that’s equal parts longing and celebration. As Felicia, Williams has the presence of a star and a voice with the urgency and clarity of a tolling steeple bell. Rush’s take on Felicia’s brother Delray includes a thunderous bass and a larger-than-life personality that serves as an apt reality check on Huey’s boundless passions. Also stellar is James Earl Jones II, who takes the part of a taciturn, broom-pushing janitor and makes him an epicenter of joy.
The production looks great, too. Christopher Carter’s choreography is a kinetic reflection of the dawn of mainstream rock. Costume designer Bill Morey’s cavalcade of ‘50s silhouettes is worthy of a couture runway. Set designers Jacqueline and Rich Penrod manage to put the audience right in the center of the radio dial. It all adds up to a wildly entertaining production.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.