Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
To inaugurate their new venue, The New McCree Theatre chose to open this season with the Tony Award winning Memphis, a musical set in the fifties’ South. Based loosely on actual events, this Joe Dipietro and David Bryan script and music tells the story of a downhome white fellow who wanders into a black club on Beale Street one night and falls in love – first with the music and then with the girl.
Huey Calhoun, played with enthusiasm and acute naiveté by Joshua Bleau, doesn’t seem to grasp the significance of the racial divide that exists in his hometown. Enamored by the music (“The Music of My Soul”) he soon falls in love with the club owner’s sister Felecia, played here by vocally adept Marianna Gillespie. It’s his determination to get her on the radio so a broader audience can share in this sound that drives the rest of the action.
Besides enthusiasm, Bleau brings a strong voice to the range of vocals evident in his many singing numbers. He is at the center of nearly every scene/song, so it was no wonder that his voice started to scratch by the end of the night Friday.
Felecia’s brother DelRay (Daniel Lopez) owns the club and is understandably concerned about his sister’s well being and skeptical of Huey’s ability and his motives. Lopez exhibits his terrific vocal ability more than once, but especially as he sings “She’s My Sister”.
While these three are at the center of the action, there is a strong supporting cast with them. First, as Huey’s mother, Ann Oravetz moves her character from a frightened, racially insensitive woman to a place of strength with her second act “Change Don’t Come Easy”. Joined here by Lopez and two other club denizens, Gator (Fred Fife) and Bobby (Justin Searcy), this one sparked cheers and applause from the audience.
In his determination to get Felicia on the air, Huey forces his way into a radio station where he manages to do just that. The rest is history even though the manager, played by Steven Visser, isn’t keen on the idea from the start and threatens to fire him. Visser plays two more of these pompous roles as Huey makes his way up the ladder.
Memphis is a story about love and loss. It covers a range of issues – prejudice, violence, hardship, stardom, failure, and redemption – and presents them with vocal and instrumental know-how.
Director Cathye Johnson’s touch is evident in the clever and efficient management of set changes and musical choreography. She has positioned the “McCree-Memphis” Band, directed by Phil Young, right on stage behind a scrim/screen but in full view. It works well since all the singers are miked and easy to hear.
There is collaboration at work on this production with folks, including actors and two co-directors from Light in the Dark Musical Theatre Company involved in performance aspects. Combining folks from various companies as well as opening in a totally new place has to have presented a series of challenges. Still, this show is well worth heading to Northwestern HS to enjoy the story, the music, the history and the effort this organization puts forth to entertain and to fulfill their mission – “To tell the African American story in the African American voice”.
Memphis continues today at 2:00 and 7:00 pm and October 17 and 18 at 7:00 pm and October 19 at 2:00 and 7:00 pm. For more information and tickets contact the box office at 810-787-2200 or online at https://www.thenewmccreetheatre.com/memphis-musical.html